Saturday, February 05, 2011

Transportation Funding Looking Grim in DC

Excuse the wonkiness of this post, but in the interest of keeping folks as updated as possible, here is a summary of what is going on in DC since the new Congress started in January.

On day 1 of the new session, the House passed new rules requiring that transportation spending levels not to exceed what is in the Highway Trust Fund.  In the past, if the Fund was short, Congress borrowed from general funds to make up the difference to meet agreed upon spending levels.  Now, there will be uncertainty from year to year because the Highway Trust Fund fluctuates with the economy.  When uncertainty prevails, biking and walking programs take the hit.   The new rules also gave more power to the budget committee to set spending ceilings without a vote of the full house. 

Shortly after Day 1, the GOP House announced its intent to roll back the budget to 2008 spending levels (cut the budget by $100 billion.)  The first salvo came in late January when a GOP "Study Group" issued its proposal recommending how to make those cuts, such as eliminating all funding for Amtrak and other transit programs.  Yesterday,  the House Appropriations Committee handed out spending ceilings to its 12 subcommittees.  It targeted the transportation & housing subcommittee for the largest cut, 17% or $11.6 billion.  Meanwhile, earlier this week, the Senate got on the ban earmark bandwagon and committed to a two year moratorium. 

The Transportation & House Budget Subcommittee will decide how to allocate its much smaller amount of dollars, and there is considerable fear that programs that have improved biking and walking will get cut. In particular, the Transportation Enhancement (TE) and Safe Routes to School programs are prime targets because they are discrete programs that have dedicated funding.  Regionally, TE has paid for the Bicycle Ambassador program, Schuylkill River and Chester Valley Trails and numerous other bike/ped and streetscape projects.

The current federal transportation bill (called SAFETEA-LU) expired in 2009 and has been extended periodically since then.  The current extension runs out within a month, so it is likely that a vote to extend it again will come up by March 4th.   Drastic changes could be in store for transportation programs to meet the spending ceilings.

Meanwhile, John Mica, the new House Chair of the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, has to write a new federal transportation bill.  He has decided to hold "listening sessions" around the country and learn more about what the public wants out of a new bill.  He is coming to Philadelphia (Feb. 17th) and Scranton, but no information has been provided yet where, what time or the format.

Earlier this week, members of the Bicycle Coalition and others visited Congressman Jim Gerlach (PA-6) to ask him if he would support keeping Transportation Enhancements and Safe Routes to School as dedicated funding programs.  The meeting in his Exton office was attended by Chris Williams, constituent who works for McMahon Associations, Kyle Guie, constituent and member of Phoenixville planning board, Shayne Trimball, staff member at Greater Valley Forge Transportation Management Association, Ray McGlew, David Broida and Steve Warren, constituents and longtime cyclists and members of the Bicycle Coalition and other friends organizations, Spencer Finch, Pennsylvania Env. Council, Alex Doty and myself from the Bicycle Coalition.   Congressman Gerlach said he supported the programs and yes, he supported keeping them as dedicated sources of funding for biking and walking projects.  However, he said repeatedly that it was important to find new and creative ways to raise transportation dollars without touching the gas tax.

Keep on the lookout for more developments through February and March.....