LaHood, lawmakers hype mass transit and sustainability



LaHood, lawmakers hype mass transit and sustainability

From Today’s Environment and Energy Daily (03/13/2009)
Josh Voorhees, E&E reporter

Increasing mass transit options around the country is a priority as the nation moves toward more sustainable transportation and land use, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told lawmakers yesterday.

“To me, it is clear that our transportation system and the development it enables must be sustainable,” LaHood told the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Development Committee. “Climate change must be acknowledged as a reality. Funding for public transportation must increase to help out here. Sustainability must permeate all we do, from highways and transit to aviation and ports.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers launched two separate transit-related efforts this week: one to use potential cap-and-trade revenues to fund public transit and rail projects, and another to ensure the interests of alternative transportation are not sacrificed when city planners design roads and intersections.

The Banking Committee will have jurisdiction over transit provisions in the upcoming surface transportation authorization, which will pay for the bulk of the nation’s road, rail and transit work over the next six years. Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) has said he is committed to boosting transit investment and to cutting some of the red tape that often places public transportation projects at a distinct disadvantage when competing for funding against highway construction.

LaHood’s call for a focus on sustainability was well received by Dodd, who himself is calling on President Obama to create a White House office of sustainable development that would incorporate transportation, housing and urban development into federal energy and climate change policies.

“The choice is clear: Americans can continue policies that encourage unchecked sprawl, leading to increased congestion and energy use, the further loss of open space, and a less competitive economy,” Dodd said in a letter to Obama. “Or we can develop our communities and our country in a sustainable way that increases the availability of public transportation, improves efficiency, and reduces oil consumption and carbon emissions, to help us meet the challenges of the 21st century.”

LaHood said that he had not spoken with Obama regarding Dodd’s proposal, but encouraged lawmakers to use the upcoming authorization to advance sustainable development and public transportation. “We can develop a system that makes it easier and less bureaucratic for communities to have access to these type of programs and these dollars,” he said. “I think the legislation that you all draft can send a pretty strong message on that.”

Dodd and LaHood met this week with state and city transit officials who are in Washington, D.C., to lobby lawmakers for a marked increase in transit dollars in the upcoming authorization. Under the current $286 billion law, which expires at the end of September, public transportation projects received $52.6 billion over five years, or roughly $10.5 billion annually.

The American Public Transit Association and the Amalgamated Transit Union are pushing lawmakers to nearly triple the annual transit authorization by the last year of the upcoming law. They are requesting a total of $123.2 billion in the bill. To get there, they want the annual investment to grow roughly by 20 percent each year, from $12.4 billion in fiscal 2010 to $30.9 billion in fiscal 2015.

Controversial accounting change
LaHood attempted to assure the panel that he was well aware of their concerns over a controversial proposal in Obama’s budget plan that would change how transportation spending shows up on the federal budget.

Obama has proposed listing both transportation outlays and budget authority as discretionary spending on the budget, and not as a mandatory contract authority provided in the highway authorization. The administration argues such a change would increase the transparency of transportation spending.

Lawmakers, however, say the accounting change would subject transportation spending to the annual appropriations process, forcing state and local agencies to limit their transportation planning to no more than one year in the future. “Such a rule would essentially convert the mandatory contract authority that currently funds our highway, transit and airport grant programs to a simple authorization of appropriations for budget scoring purposes,” the chairmen and ranking members of seven key transportation committees and subcommittees wrote to Obama last week.

LaHood told Dodd, who along with ranking member Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) signed the letter, that he understood the lawmakers objections. “We will work with you,” he said. “What we will try and do is have members of this administration work with you and your committee to reach some kind of consideration for the issues that you raised in your letter,” he told Dodd.

Cap-and-trade revenues
A pair of bipartisan senators Wednesday introduced legislation to ensure that a portion of any revenue raised from a national cap-and-trade program is set aside to fund environmentally friendly transportation projects.

Under the bill, cosponsored by Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), 10 percent of any revenues generated from the auction of emissions credits would be required to be used to create more efficient transportation systems — such as new or expanded transit or passenger rail — that focus on curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

Companion legislation has been introduced in the House by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) and Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) (E&ENews PM, Feb. 27).

The transportation sector is responsible for about one-third of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions, according to government estimates, and Obama and congressional Democrats have vowed to recast the nation’s transportation strategy to curb emissions.

‘Complete streets’
A separate pair of lawmakers introduced their own bill Wednesday that would push state DOTs and planning organizations to adopt “complete streets” polices.

“Complete streets” policies promote road planning that ensure that roadways and intersections are safe for all those traveling on them — drivers and bus riders, as well as pedestrians and bicyclists.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) said their bill would help to curb congestion and oil consumption by encouraging travelers to abandon their cars for shorter trips.

“By diversifying our roadways, we can provide real alternatives to travel by car. The strength of this legislation is that it recognizes that we face very real challenges today, many of which are interwoven,” Matsui said. “By opening up our roadways to pedestrians and cyclists, we can help ease the congestion on our nation’s roads. In doing so, we will make progress fighting air pollution and global warming, and we will take strides toward improving the health and protecting the safety of people across our country.”

More than 80 jurisdictions nationwide already have adopted complete streets policies though legislation, internal agency policies and design manuals, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, which applauded the effort.

“Senator Harkin and Congresswoman Matsui understand that unless we change how we build our roads, we will face an endless cycle of rising transportation costs, increased congestion, and more pedestrian and cycling accidents,” said Michael Replogle, EDF transportation director. “In today’s economy, every community wants more safe transportation options that are less expensive and our state transportation departments must adjust accordingly.”