Infrastructure in the News: February 6, 2013
BAF IN THE NEWS:
Global Airport Cities: US airports need $71.3bn of essential infrastructure projects
America’s airports need to complete $71.3 billion worth of essential infrastructure projects between now and 2017 if they are going to keep up with passenger growth forecasts, according to a new report from Airports Council International – North America (ACI-NA).
USA Today: Study calculates how much time to allow for traffic
Drivers in the nation's most-congested cities should add 38 to 95 minutes to many routine 20-minute trips if they want to arrive on time, warns a new study on gauging unpredictable traffic.
Think Progress: Why The 5.5 Billion Hours Americans Spend In Commuter Traffic Justifies More Infrastructure Spending
The 5.5 billion hours Americans sat in traffic in 2011 cost the country a whopping $121 billion, according to an Urban Mobility Report from Texas A&M. Not surprisingly, the most congested cities are also some of the most populated, including Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco-Oakland, New York-Newark, Boston, Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia and Seattle:
AIN Online: Study: Airport Infrastructure Investment To Fall Short by 2020
Dire consequences await the U.S. economy in the absence of significantly increased investment in airport infrastructure in the coming years, according to a new report commissioned by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The fifth and final report in the ASCE’s Failure to Act series, The Impact of Current Infrastructure Investment on America’s Economic Future, predicts an estimated gap in airport investment between now and 2020 of $39 billion.
The Globe and Mail: Ottawa looks to boost spending in 2013 budget
The Conservative government is preparing to commit long-term cash for infrastructure in its 2013 budget in an effort to squeeze more projects – including partnerships with the private sector – out of limited public funds.
Transportation Nation: The High Cost of Traffic: Time, Money, and Climate Change
Urban automobile traffic is better than it was at its peak in 2005 — but the cost of traffic congestion is on the rise.
Transportation Nation: LaHood: There’s a “Sense of Urgency” on Transit Aid
(Alec Hamilton-WNYC News) U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood says area transit agencies should be able to be ready to withstand future storms.
Slate: Meet the Most Traffic-Jammed Cities in America
The 2012 version of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute congestion report is out, and the news is basically that as the economy recovers from the great recession, traffic jams are getting worse again. The most congested metropolitan area in the United States is Washington D.C., followed by Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Boston. The good news is that some of those cities at least offer excellent nondriving commuting options to some of the population, (I'm about a 15 minute walk from my office) but as you can see in the chart above, this is one area of American life that's clearly gotten worse over the past generation.
Forbes: What the Superdome Blackout Says About American Competitiveness
The eyes of the world were watching on Sunday as the biggest single event in sports flickered across millions of television screens across the globe. Then the lights went out. Naturally and immediately most people thought “What an embarrassment.” There has been some misdirected and rather fatuous blame over the incident directed at New Orleans, with some commentators going as far as to say that the power outage should knock The Big Easy out of the running for future Super Bowls. That is of
UPI.com: Mass transit takers physically active
ATLANTA, Feb. 5 (UPI) -- People who take mass transit in large urban areas may more than meet their weekly recommended aerobic exercise requirement, U.S. researchers say.
The Atlantic Cities: How Virtual Traffic Lights Could Cut Down on Congestion
Every new glimpse at the future of urban transport seems to be missing something pretty big. A car without, you know, human drivers. A trains of cars commuting on the highway with human drivers who aren't, you know, actually driving. The next peek ahead, according to computer scientist Ozan Tonguz of Carnegie Mellon University, gets rid of all the traffic lights.
WRI Insights: How Climate Change Impacts America’s Energy Infrastructure
As we’ve seen recently with Hurricane Sandy, epic drought, and wildfires, climate change visibly impacts lives and livelihoods throughout the United States. Global warming’s effects extend beyond people, wildlife, and ecosystems, though: They’re threatening America’s energy infrastructure.
APA Daily Planning News: Carlisle residents pack urban redevelopment meeting
Feb. 05--Environmentally friendly design, improved public transit, better infrastructure, new housing, extra retail options -- all pieces Carlisle residents hope are part of the borough's urban redevelopment puzzle.
Washington Post: Washington rated the worst for traffic congestion — again
When it comes to traffic congestion around Washington, even the good news is bad, and it goes downhill from there.
Washington Post: Va. lawmakers give McDonnell partial win on transportation at session midpoint
RICHMOND — Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s bid to overhaul transportation funding and secure his political legacy prevailed in the GOP-led House on Tuesday but remained in doubt after the evenly divided Senate deadlocked over its version at the midpoint of the General Assembly’s annual session.
Washington Post: Md. Senate leader says ‘nothing’ will happen on transportation without O’Malley
The day after the formal introduction of his transportation plan, Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) conceded that it is unlikely to go anywhere without the support of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).
Philadelphia Inquirer: Pennsylvania gas taxes would rise five cents a year under Gov. Corbett's budget
Pennsylvania gasoline taxes would rise an average of about five cents a gallon a year over the next five years to pay for a $1.8 billion increase in transportation funding under the budget proposed Tuesday by Gov. Corbett.
Urban Land Institute: Aurora Corridor in Shoreline, Washington: An Infrastructure Innovator
ULI’s new report, Shifting Suburbs: Reinventing Infrastructure for Compact Development, includes four corridor reinvention case studies. The Aurora Corridor, a three-mile stretch of Highway 99 that runs through the Seattle suburb of Shoreline, is one of them. Since infrastructure improvements began in 2005, road accidents have dropped 60% along the Aurora Corridor, which was previously one of the most accident-prone stretches of road in the country.
Fast Lane: DOT support for improved ferry service boosts another transportation option
It might surprise even transportation fans to learn that DOT's Federal Highway Administration is home to a program supporting ferry service in America. But it's true, and today the FHWA Ferry Boat Program announced $30.9 million in funding to improve ferry service in 37 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
WCNC.com: 4 in GOP join Charlotte streetcar fight
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Tension between state Republicans and Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx over transit money escalated Tuesday when four lawmakers accused the mayor of “bad faith” and suggested the state might reconsider its funding of light-rail extension.
MyNorthwest.com: Funds drying up for Metro Transit bus service in Seattle
With a couple of taxes expiring next year, Metro Transit is warning about major cuts to bus service if they don't find some new money fast.
Streetsblog: The Votes Are In: Omaha Abomination Voted Worst Intersection in the U.S.
Well, it was a tough competition for America’s Worst Intersection, with a lot of worthy contenders — the kind of intersections that would make an Olympic sprinter nervous. But the people have spoken — 468 of them — and in the end it wasn’t even close. Our winner is Omaha, Nebraska’s intersection of 132nd Street, Industrial Road, Millard Avenue, and L Street.
Transportation Nation: NYC Ready to Launch Taxi E-Hail Technology
(New Tech City – WNYC) New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission is starting a one-year pilot program February 15 that will bring e-hails to Manhattan for the first time.
State Journal-Register: Houston pledges to produce infrastructure financing plan
Mayor Mike Houston on Tuesday promised to bring the city council his recommendations on how to pay for fixing city streets, sidewalks and sewers. He also said a sales tax increase might be needed.
Boston.com: Gov. Patrick visits to Framingham for a conversation on improving downtown infrastructure
Clad in a mustard-yellow baseball cap and a long tan winter coat, Governor Deval Patrick stuffed his hands in his pockets, trying to keep warm, as he looked out from his post atop the vandalized Pearl Street parking garage at the bustling center of downtown Framingham.
Wall Street Journal: Conn. Mulls Return of Tolls
By JOSEPH DE AVILA
February 4, 2013
Connecticut has long been among a handful of Eastern states with highways and bridges free of tolls, all of them eliminated after two deadly accidents in the 1980s.
Times have changed, some lawmakers argue. Now, the state has a $1.2 billion hole in its budget plan, and tolls along Interstate 95, the Interstate 84 Viaduct in Hartford and at border crossings are being studied as one of many ways to raise revenue to close it.
"We've got a $1.2 billion problem this year," said state Sen. Toni Harp, the Democratic Appropriations Committee chairwoman who supports border tolls. "And, honestly, folks are just grasping for straws."
Not surprisingly, new tolls are an unpopular idea. So how much are commuters and travelers from other states willing to pay to drive through Connecticut?
"Fifty cents. And I'm being generous," said Anthony Cristiano, 48 years old, of Westchester County, who commutes to Greenwich for his job at Morgan Stanley MS -0.21% . "It's especially bad to punish people coming to Connecticut to work. Companies move here from the city because they save money on rent and other expenses. This could take away that incentive."
As he prepares to introduce a budget plan Wednesday, Gov. Dannel Malloy isn't planning new tolls, said spokesman Andrew Doba, but it isn't "something you can take off the table entirely."
Tolls wouldn't solve all of Connecticut's budget woes, and the current proposals in the Legislature don't say how much the levies would cost drivers or how much they would raise in revenue. New tolls would require approval by the state Legislature and then the federal government, which requires all of the potential money to go back into transportation projects.
Those efforts are being crunched by a cash shortage. The state's Special Transportation Fund—which pays for road, rail and bus maintenance—faces a projected annual deficit of $51.8 million in fiscal year 2015 and $98.4 million in fiscal year 2016, according to the state's Office of Policy and Management. The state also has a backlog of $1.76 billion worth of unfunded highway and bridge projects, according to the state Department of Transportation.
"It's something that affects all 50 states," said Thomas Maziarz, chief of the bureau of policy and planning at the Department of Transportation. Gas-tax revenue at the state and federal levels have been falling as fuel-efficiency standards improve, resulting in less money for roads and bridges, he said.
The Department of Transportation this year is also going to study congestion-pricing tolls on I-95 between New York and New Haven, a system under which fees would be higher during peak hours, Mr. Maziarz said.
"At this point we have a lot of financial needs in the department. If we want to go beyond just supporting existing infrastructure, we will need additional revenue," said Mr. Maziarz, who added the department is only studying tolls and hasn't made a final decision.
The movement to rid Connecticut of tolls began in 1983 when a tractor-trailer crashed into cars lined up at a toll in Stratford, killing seven passengers. And in June 1983, a Greenwich bridge located near an I-95 toll collapsed early in the morning while traffic was light. Three people died.
Then-Gov. William O'Neill signed a law in July 1983 to phase out tolls over the next few years.
Over the years, Connecticut residents have become used to the idea of driving without paying the state for the privilege, and efforts to reinstate the tolls have floundered. In March 2010, Quinnipiac University polled 1,451 residents and found that 56% opposed tolls on state highways, compared with 40% who supported them.
Hilary Margenot Griffin, 46, of Madison, Conn., said residents already pay enough. "It's already crazy with the taxes. I realize the state has to fund its budget, but this is too much. It's just more money out the door," Ms. Griffin said.
Tolls would also face opposition from the Motor Transportation Association of Connecticut, which represents the trucking industry. Truck companies already pay fees to drive through the state, said Michael Riley, the trade association's president. Delivery costs would rise with new tolls, he said.
Mr. Riley wasn't convinced that toll revenue would improve traffic conditions.
"Route 95 is still going to be a zoo," he said.
AAA, the driver advocacy group, hasn't taken a position on Connecticut's toll proposals, said spokesman Aaron Kupec. "The devil is going to be in the details," he said. The automobile association in general doesn't support adding tolls to existing highways or bridges if new lanes aren't also included, he added.
Proponents of tolls said traffic concerns would be eased by new technology that has largely eliminated the need for toll booths. Overhanging structures that assess fees with E-ZPass transponders and other methods without requiring vehicles to stop have become common.
"There is still an association that people have with barricades and long lines," said Emil Frankel, former Connecticut Department of Transportation commissioner and visiting scholar with the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
Some residents said they could warm up to the idea if it improved the highways.
"I think there are a lot of ways to fix the state budget. The first would be cutting waste," said Curt Pollitt, 60, from Greenwich. "But for helping fix the infrastructure, the railroads and the highways in the state? Maybe tolls are the answer."
Ms. Harp said her legislative colleagues have warmed to the idea after noticing how much neighboring states such as New York and Massachusetts raise each year from Connecticut residents traveling through.
"They are like, 'They are getting this money, our revenues aren't producing,'" Ms. Harp said. "Maybe we should start thinking about tolls again."
—Mara Gay contributed to this article.
Corrections & Amplifications
In June 1983, a bridge in Greenwich, Conn. collapsed early in the morning when there was little traffic. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the collapse occurred while it was loaded up with automobiles waiting to pass through a toll.
By Adam Snider and Burgess Everett Featuring Kathryn A. Wolfe and Alex Guillén
DOT EYEING SEQUESTER: With less than a month until sequestration kicks in, DOT is working on minimizing the pain from the automatic spending cuts. MT obtained a memo from Deputy Secretary John Porcari to DOT employees that lays out what the agency is doing — but it’s pretty vague, so we’ll let him take it away from here: “We will use any and all flexibilities we have to protect our core operations and mission. However, our ability to do so will be limited by the rigid nature of the cuts imposed by Congress. As a result, we are closely examining contracts, grants and other forms of expenditures across the department to determine where we can reduce costs. In many cases, this could mean making cuts to vital programs or curtailing spending on contracts.” The agency is eyeing savings in “travel, training, facilities and supplies,” and there’s also the chance of furloughs, but labor agreements require a 30-day notice for such an event. Adam has more for Pros: http://politico.pro/UuXJNZ
Read Porcari’s memo to staff: MT kindly offers up Porcari’s memo to DOT employees, which you can read right here: http://bit.ly/11nS678
BIG BROTHER VS. THE HIGHWAY TRUST FUND: Leading transportation lawmakers and financing experts point to a VMT fee as the way to eventually solve the imbalance between the transportation revenue the country brings in and its infrastructure needs, while still maintaining a user-pays framework. Finance whiz Jack Basso said the main impediment — Big Brother privacy concerns — is a “red herring” given the tracking already in place via E-ZPass. “There’s a fair amount of ignorance on the subject. It is a new concept,” he told MT. Earl Blumenauer wants to get rid of that ignorance, via a bill establishing a large-scale national study of how to implement a scheme, but at this point it’s back to the feds vs. states dilemma. “I’d like to see the states step up,” House T&I Chairman Bill Shuster said. “The federal government doesn't, I think, need to do that.” Check out lots more in today’s POLITICO paper or right here: http://politico.pro/12qYOZ7
Why VMT? Because the Highway Trust Fund that pays for road, bridge and transit projects continues to take in far less than it spends each year, which has led to a series of multibillion-dollar bailouts over the past few years. And right on cue, CBO put out new figures showing both the highway and transit accounts will run dry sometime in FY 2015, not long after MAP-21 expires. The highway account should end FY 2014 with just over $5 billion, and the transit account will have upwards of $3 billion, according to a source in the know. The overall HTF receipts aren’t much changed from last year’s estimates. The CBO figures assume the general funds transfers into the HTF are NOT subject to sequestration, which is good news, since it’s due for a $10 billion infusion next year. Pros get the handy chart of year-to-year estimates of receipts, spending and end-of-year balances: http://politico.pro/XKw3kw
Aviation funds in better shape: While surface transportation taxes will stay largely flat, annual federal aviation funds look primed to nearly double over 10 years, picking up steam each year. CBO projects taking in $21.2 billion in aviation fees in 2023, up from $12.5 billion in 2012. There’s more numbers in this chart but be warned — it opens as an Excel file: http://1.usa.gov/YRlRvj
T&I SPECIAL PANEL MEETING TODAY: Don’t freak out, it’s just an informal meeting with staff and Chairman John Duncan not open to the public. But MT chatted with Duncan and got a bit more info about what they’re considering: “We talked about several different things, maybe even something on cybersecurity or ways to get the private sector more involved in the transportation industry or waste in transportation, all sorts of things. We would have roundtables or hearings. … We’re just now starting to flesh all that out.” Duncan’s takeaway on the panel’s potential: “Basically, they’ve said the sky’s the limit.”
WHOLE LOT OF HUDDLING — Shuster mulls hearing: T&I Chairman Shuster said a hearing may be going down soon, possibly even next week, on the general issues that the committee needs to tackle. He also gave MT his side of his breakfast date with EPW Chairwoman Barbara Boxer a few days ago, and said his staffers are beginning to check out Boxer’s water resources draft bill and how “to deal with the moratorium on earmarks.” Shuster agreed that he and his Senate counterpart are on solid ground for their coming work together. “I think we’re on the same page in the sense that we know there are some things we need to take care of, WRDA and the next highway bill. We’re on the same page in that sense,” he said. “She wants a bill, I want a bill. … [When] we start to get into the weeds, we’ll have some differences.” But they aren’t there yet: He said their discussions are still “at 30,000 feet.”
Plane spoken: House aviation subcommittee Chairman Frank LoBiondo and ranking member Rick Larsen planned to sit down late Tuesday to begin working on their agenda. Larsen told MT that he’s also holding listening sessions “with almost every aviation group under the sun.” He said the primary thing on those group’s minds: the next reauthorization. Larsen said his panel might eventually hold a hearing that touches on the Dreamliner, but not in a specific investigatory sense. “If there’s any kind of hearing, it would be on the broader aviation safety issues,” Larsen said. It’s fair to say everyone that sees him is bugging him about Dreamliner hearings. “My question to folks who ask that” — including MT, presumably — “why have a hearing on a question that no one has answered yet?”
On track: Railroads Chairman Jeff Denham told MT he, too, set up late Tuesday meetings on the panel’s agenda. Must be that time of the year.
CORPORATE JET TAXES: Democrats are again considering cutting a tax break for corporate jet owners as lawmakers start hashing out another stopgap to temporarily avoid the worst of the March 1 sequester cuts. It’s too early to say whether language to get rid of the corporate jet tax break will be included in the package that emerges, but a Senate Democratic budget aide confirmed that it was among a menu of options under discussion at Democrats’ Tuesday policy retreat. But closing the depreciation tax break also would apply to all general aviation aircraft, not just business jets, according to a “dear colleague” letter sent to House lawmakers by GOP Rep. Mike Pompeo (read it here: http://bit.ly/11I1j9q). Kathryn and Burgess have the story for Pros: http://politico.pro/14QcIUo
Where are the jobs? National Air Transportation Association President Tom Hendricks said beyond hurting manufacturers, changing the depreciation schedule would “have a cascading negative impact on many small general aviation businesses and jobs across the country.”
VIRGINIA TRANSPO WATCH: It was a busy transportation day in Richmond — the Virginia Senate deadlocked over a transportation bill and couldn’t approve anything before the “crossover” deadline. The final hope in this session is a bill passed by the House of Delegates that is a tweaked version of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s ambitious plan that strikes the $100 fee for hybrid cars. The divided Senate — Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling can’t break ties on revenue measures — can take up the House bill and change it or simply kill it if there’s not a wider agreement. McDonnell is not happy: “I think the Democrats are way out of touch and they need to start being reasonable,” he told the Post. Dems are smarting over the Republican redistricting bill that could hit the House floor today. WaPo has more: http://wapo.st/XmVFC5
Distracted driving in the Dominion State: The state House and Senate passed legislation to make texting while driving a primary offense and hike the fine from $20 to $250. Virginian-Pilot: http://bit.ly/XgbXyw
DAILY DREAMLINER UPDATE: An FAA spokeswoman said the agency is continuing to review Boeing's application for Dreamliner test flights to gather battery data, and Boeing had nothing new to report. Rep. Larsen told MT the first test flight would go from Texas to Seattle — but that he and his staff hadn’t learned whether the FAA had approved the test flights.
KBH JOINS BRACEWELL & GIULIANI: Former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is joining the Dallas office of Bracewell & Giuliani as senior counsel. Hutchison will work with clients in the energy, transportation, banking and telecommunications sectors, according to the firm. She was a heavy hitter on a number of transportation issues from her perch as the Commerce Committee’s ranking member.
MAILBAG — NoVa wants a hand: A group of concerned Northern Virginia citizens wrote to DOT Secretary Ray LaHood, both Virginia senators and Reps. Gerry Connolly and Frank Wolf about commercial development around budding Silver Line stations — and MWAA property. The letter “recommends that, if it approves of such a step, Congress direct MWAA to share any income from these tax-free commercial initiatives with those who are paying for the Silver Line, including Dulles Toll Road users.” Read it: http://bit.ly/14C2Ex8
YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: The country’s major freight railroads will announce a plan to invest $24.5 billion on the rails this year, more than half of that going to capital expenditure improvements. “This year, freight railroads plan to continue to focus on investments that maintain and enhance our physical infrastructure and safety systems, including cutting-edge technology that ensures we are ready to deliver for the future,” AAR CEO Ed Hamberger will say in a statement later today.
THE DAY AHEAD: 9 a.m. — The Christian Science Monitor hosts a breakfast with NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman. St. Regis Hotel, 923 16th St. NW.
CABOOSE — Frown cure: If your workload has you down this morning, please watch how psyched this little girl is about her first train ride: http://bit.ly/VGuok2
- Sen. Mark Begich really wants a new road between King Cove and Cold Bay in Alaska. Release: http://1.usa.gov/UuI4hv
Politico Pro: DOT memo offers little on sequester prep
By Adam Snider
The DOT is readying for the sequester’s automatic spending cuts, but an internal memo obtained by POLITICO stopped short of saying who would be affected and only vaguely described the agency’s work to lessen the pain.
Secretary Ray LaHood, Deputy Secretary John Porcari and other senior DOT officials “are engaged in extensive planning efforts to determine how we would deal with sequestration,” Porcari wrote to agency employees Tuesday afternoon.
But past that, Porcari kept things generic. He wrote that DOT is “carefully considering how to use the various tools at our disposal to reduce costs in order to mitigate as much as possible the disruption to our operations, our programs, and all of you.”
“We will use any and all flexibilities we have to protect our core operations and mission,” Porcari wrote. “However, our ability to do so will be limited by the rigid nature of the cuts imposed by Congress. As a result, we are closely examining contracts, grants, and other forms of expenditures across the department to determine where we can reduce costs.”
Those cost reductions could come from “cuts to vital programs or curtailing spending on contracts,” Porcari wrote. “We also will take steps, wherever possible, to cut operational or administrative costs in areas such as travel, training, facilities, and supplies.”
But all that might not save DOT from having to furlough some employees — though the department will give affected workers a 30-day notice. “We also will continue to engage in discussions with employee unions as appropriate, to ensure that any furloughs are applied in a fair and appropriate manner,” Porcari wrote.
The memo comes less than a month before the automatic budget cuts are set to kick in March 1 and on the same day that President Barack Obama proposed replacing the cuts with a short-term mix of targeted spending reductions and tax code changes.
As DOT preps for sequestration’s scythe, it may come as some relief that the billions in domestic cuts the country is heading toward have been dulled.
As a result of the tax relief deal reached by Congress on New Year’s Day, cuts previously expected to slash sequester-vulnerable transportation accounts by about 8 percent have been reduced to closer to 5 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Richard Kogan.
One exception is money headed for transportation networks damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Disaster aid money that flows into certain transportation accounts would be subject to cuts.
While the sequester could cost the Northeast $2.5 billion in aid tied to Sandy, other accounts are safe.
The Office of Management and Budget has already deemed the Highway Trust Fund exempt from the chopping block. And even the general fund transfers into the trust fund — including $10 billion next year called for in last summer’s transportation bill — appear to be off-limits, though nothing has been finalized, according to a transportation financing expert who was reviewing new Congressional Budget Office figures.
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.
By Burgess Everett
Imagine paying into the nation’s roads and bridges based on how far you drive each year, rather than how much gasoline you consume.
That future is not far off, transportation experts and some lawmakers say. But the United States has not yet fully committed to researching a replacement for the outdated federal gasoline tax, which increasingly brings in fewer dollars relative to the trillions in investment needed for roads, rails and ports.
The main impediment thus far to a vehicle-miles-traveled fee: It’s easily cast as a policy that will bring more government intrusion and the specter of Big Brother.
“There’s a fair amount of ignorance on the subject. It is a new concept,” said Jack Basso, a transportation financing expert.
But Basso said that with the wide acceptance of electronic tolling schemes — which track car movements through plazas — the privacy flag raised “is a red herring.” Instead, the real problems to solve are selecting from myriad technological choices and evolving away from collecting taxes at the fuel pump to charging vehicle owners directly.
The reasons for shaking up the funding mechanism for road repairs, public transportation funding and interstate coordination are many. The federal gas tax has proved near-impossible to raise since 1993 and isn’t indexed to inflation. President Barack Obama has led the federal charge to increase fuel efficiency in the nation’s auto fleet, which means fewer gas tax dollars. And a new class of alternative-fuel vehicles promises to not use a drop of gasoline.
Those factors have necessitated deeply unpopular general fund bailouts for the national infrastructure program in recent years and led Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) to introduce a bill to establish a $150 million national study of a distance-based fee during the dying embers of the last Congress.
The longshot bill died in committee, but Blumenauer plans to submit another effort sometime this Congress. He said the country needs to get a jump on a new way to pay for the country’s beleaguered infrastructure, which plummets further down competitiveness lists each year.
“This is going to happen, I think, faster than people recognize,” Blumenauer said of a move away from the gas tax. “There are a variety of states that are dealing with a transportation fund that’s in a downward spiral and there are more and more vehicles that aren’t paying their fair share.”
Nearly everyone who has given the issue even a cursory look is aware of the problem — but that has not yet translated to action. The White House has said a vehicle-miles-traveled system is not a policy the administration would embrace. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) has called VMT the long-term option that “seems to be the only way to stop the decline” in slackened revenues but isn’t backing Blumenauer's national study.
“I’d like to see the states step up,” Shuster said. “The federal government doesn't, I think, need to do that. The federal government should be talking to the states and saying: ‘If you want to do this, let’s all get together. Let's all chip in.’”
States including Washington, Nevada and Oregon are already researching the issue, and Congress initiated a nationwide study in a 2005 transportation bill. But technology has evolved exponentially in the intervening eight years, and Blumenauer said more needs to be done.
He has not reintroduced his bill yet this Congress, holding out hope he can huddle with Shuster to devise legislation that can be tacked onto the next surface transportation bill, due in 2014. Blumenauer is bullish that bipartisan support for transportation finance innovation will soon coalesce.
“I suspect you are going to see momentum,” he said.
Oregon’s Department of Transportation is in the midst of a four-month pilot program involving dozens of drivers that gives a menu of choices for paying into the state’s transportation coffers based on driving distance. The option that could make the most sense on a national scale is a device that plugs into an automobile’s diagnostic port to get information straight from the odometer — not a GPS device.
Privacy issues have dogged the idea of VMT for years, and infrastructure boosters don’t expect the public to give slam-dunk approval to the idea of the government tracking drivers’ every movements to tax them.
Jim Whitty, ODOT’s resident alternative funding expert, said the odometer system would be the simplest and least controversial way to track how much of the roads drivers use. Oregon offers a GPS tracking option as part of its program, but that’s from a private company.
“We just don't want to be accused of tracking people,” Whitty said. “What we’re discovering is this solves the privacy issues. That people don't have the concern.”
Oregon’s Legislature is also looking to address reluctance by liberals who want to ensure that fuel-inefficient vehicles like SUVs and trucks are punished for guzzling gas. A straight-up mileage-based fee would lead to a situation where a Prius and an Escalade are paying the same rates. A bill introduced in the statehouse would apply the mileage-based fee to only high-mileage vehicles.
“It doesn't make sense to replace the gas tax for inefficient vehicles,” Whitty said. “Keep those vehicles on the gas tax.”
Sound complicated? That might be why such a study is needed. House Transportation committee ranking member Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) said he is particularly concerned about the possibility of putting black boxes in cars and inflicting economic pain on low-income constituents who drive long distances in his sprawling district. But he thinks it’s time for Washington to figure out what it can and cannot do.
“What kind of technology is that going to involve and how expensive is it going to be and how are you going to pay for all of that?” Rahall said, also disagreeing with Shuster’s assertion that research should be left to the states. “I’d rather see the feds do it. I think it’s a federal issue.”
House Republicans fought to prohibit the federal government from even studying a distance-based fee in last year’s spending bill but recently dropped their insistence on including that provision in the next one, due in March. Former Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.), who's from a massive district on the Canadian border, was the bulldog behind that prohibition effort and expects the House’s deep opposition to continue.
“I don’t think people will be embracing VMT. I really don't,” he said. “I carried the ball this time. There will be someone else that will carry the ball.”
By Kathryn A. Wolfe and Burgess Everett
Democrats are again considering cutting off a tax break for corporate jet owners as lawmakers start hashing out another stopgap to temporarily avoid the worst of the March 1 sequester cuts.
An aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said it is too early to say whether language to get rid of the corporate jet tax break will be included in the package that emerges, but a Senate Democratic budget aide confirmed that it was among a menu of options under discussion at Democrats’ Tuesday policy retreat.
The retreat took place the same day that President Barack Obama called on Congress to head off the sequester through a short-term package that would include spending cuts and closing tax loopholes in order to raise government revenues.
White House press secretary Jay Carney expanded on Obama's remarks later, saying "subsidies to oil and gas companies" and "subsidies to corporate jet owners" are the kinds of tax loopholes that are "on paper, part of the president's plan."
The tax break in question allows taxes on general aviation planes to be depreciated over a period of five years, as opposed to the seven years allowed for commercial airliners. In the past, Obama and Democrats have proposed bringing this depreciation schedule in line with that of airliners. That move would generate an estimated $3 billion over 10 years.
Reid and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made dueling statements about the issue in advance of their respective retreats.
Reid kicked it off on an appearance on “This Week,” citing corporate jets as the kind of “low-hanging fruit” tax reform Congress should address.
“We believe that the rich should contribute. We believe we should fill those tax loopholes, get rid of them, I should say. And that's where we need to go,” Reid said.
On Monday, McConnell took to the Senate floor to blast “poll-tested gimmicks” like raising taxes on corporate or private jets.
“If you were to listen to the Democrats, you’d think all of our ills could be solved by raising taxes on private jets,” McConnell said. “Just take the tax hike on so-called corporate jets. It wouldn’t raise enough revenue to offset one week of the decade-long sequester it’s meant to offset. One week,” McConnell said.
And on Tuesday, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, cast Democrats’ attempts to close the tax break as “absurd.” “The American people don’t need more gimmicks and unserious talking points — they need a concrete deficit reduction plan and a president willing to lead,” Hatch said.
Getting rid of the tax break for corporate jet owners is a favorite saw for Democrats, and marries well with the populist tone the administration has adopted.
During an October presidential debate, Obama suggested the economy could be boosted by doing away with what he called corporate welfare, such as tax breaks for Big Oil and corporate jets.
“Why wouldn't we eliminate tax breaks for corporate jets? My attitude is, if you got a corporate jet, you can probably afford to pay full freight, not get a special break for it,” Obama said at the time.
But closing the depreciation tax break also would apply to all general aviation aircraft, not just business jets, according to a “Dear Colleague” letter sent to House lawmakers by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.).
There’s no such thing as a depreciation loophole for corporate jets and that the changes Democrats have proposed would apply to all noncommercial aircraft, including farmers’ crop dusters, he wrote, and any effort to increase taxes on the planes would be bad for the economy.
“It is wrong to target the depreciation period for [general aviation] aircraft to advance a narrow political goal of class warfare. Singling out the depreciation schedule for GA will harm the 1.2 million hard-working men and women who make a living building and servicing these aircraft,” Pompeo wrote.
A proposal to get rid of the tax break was included in Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget request, and Democrats pressed for it to be included in previous debt ceiling deals.
For airplane manufacturers, Democrats’ tax talk is more of the same. Pete Bunce, president and CEO of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, said it’s about finger-pointing and “sound bites.”
Bunce defended the accelerated depreciation enjoyed by corporate jets, saying it encourages businesses to buy more airplanes, which boosts sales and creates jobs.
“Government officials, including the president, fly some of the best equipped business jets on the planet and use these machines for the same purpose that businessmen and women use their aircraft — as an efficient time management and security tool. It’s time to stop all the political games and focus on boosting general aviation to help generate jobs and grow our economy,” Bunce said in a statement.
Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association, said Democrats’ statements on this subject have been “misleading.” He too argued that the accelerated depreciation schedule isn’t a loophole. Rather, Bolen said it works “exactly as policymakers intended” when Congress first adopted it in 1986.
Every dollar invested in water infrastructure adds almost $9 to the economy.