Transportation Funding and TOD Advances in Congress
While many people (including this writer!) predicted that 2012 would be a sleepy year for legislation due to the presidential election, the first several months have instead been chock-full of transportation-related activity. Both the House and Senate are actively considering multi-year surface transportation reauthorization bills. (As a reminder, the previous authorization, SAFETEA-LU, expired 2½ years ago and federal transportation programs are continuing to function thanks to a series of short-term extension bills, the most recent of which expires at the end of March).
Reconnecting America has been working with key Congressional offices and partner organizations to promote transit-oriented development in the context of the surface transportation reauthorization bill. This outreach has had an effect. Both the Senate and the House bills include new provisions specifically related to TOD. Separate Senate bills have also been introduced on TOD and livable communities.
The Senate is moving forward a bipartisan, two-year reauthorization bill that funds transportation at current levels, plus a small increase for inflation. Although current gas tax receipts into the federal Highway Trust Fund are not enough by themselves to sustain that level of funding, about $10 billion in receipts from various other taxes and fees would be transferred into the Trust Fund to cover the gap. The Senate bill focuses on improving the condition of the nation’s transportation infrastructure and consolidates a number of highway programs, and several transit programs, into a more streamlined structure.
The Senate bill also contains three important provisions related to TOD:
Pilot Program for Transit-Oriented Development Planning. The bill provides $20 million for each of FY2012 and FY2013 for a competitive grant program to support TOD planning around New Starts projects. Under this new program, FTA would award grants to public agencies to conduct planning around a new fixed guideway project or a core capacity improvement project. The planning activities would seek to enhance economic development and ridership on the project, improve access and connectivity, and enable mixed-use development and private-sector participation.
Transit-Oriented Development as a National Goal. The bill includes, for the first time, a set of national goals for the federal transit program. One of the goals identified for the program is to maximize economic development opportunities by connecting workers to jobs, encouraging “mixed-use, transit-oriented development,” and leveraging private investment and joint development. These national goals establish the framework under which the federal transit program operates and provide direction for the Federal Transit Administration in their implementation of the program.
National Technical Assistance Center for Transit-Oriented Development. The bill restructures Federal Tranist Administration’s varied research programs into two targeted programs. One would focus on research, development, demonstration, and deployment projects, and the other would focus on technical assistance projects. Under the technical assistance section, FTA is given the authority to establish technical assistance centers in four specific categories, one of which is TOD. The centers would be established through a competitive process, on a biannual basis. The bill provides $4.5 million for each of FY2012 and FY2013 for technical assistance and standards development activities.
Unlike the Senate, the House has been moving forward on a reauthorization bill without Democratic support. Last month, the House proposed a five-year bill that would have deposited all gas tax revenues into the Highway Account of the Highway Trust Fund, rather than sharing those revenues with transit as has been done since 1982. Transit would instead have to be funded from general funds. However, due to an outcry from both Democrats and moderate Republicans, House leaders are now revamping their bill, and reportedly restoring transit’s gas tax funding. Reports suggest that the House will now move forward with a two- or three-year bill, at or below current funding levels.
Even if the transit funding issue is resolved, the House bill faces several challenges due to controversial policy proposals, including streamlining environmental reviews, increasing private-sector participation in transportation programs, and consolidating or eliminating federal programs. But the House bill also includes an important provision specifically related to TOD. Within the existing TIFIA program, which provides loans and loan guarantees for large-scale transportation projects, the House bill creates a new eligibility for projects that improve mobility within transit, passenger rail and intercity bus station areas. To be eligible, such projects must have a total cost of at least $15 million (other TIFIA projects must cost at least $50 million), and would be subject to the same financial terms as other TIFIA projects.
The Senate is expected to conclude debate on the reauthorization bill within the next week or two, while the House timetable is less certain as they work on revamping their bill. Given the impending deadline of March 31, it appears likely that another short-term extension of SAFETEA-LU will be needed.
TOD and Livable Communities Legislation: Two bills related to TOD and livable communities have been introduced in the Senate. “Jumpstarting Transit-Oriented Development Act” (S. 2053) was introduced by Senator Bennet (D-CO) and Senator Warner (D-VA). This bill would create a TOD planning grant program and a TOD infrastructure credit facility to provide federal loans and loan guarantees to support the infrastructure associated with TOD: lighting, utility relocation, land acquisition, etc. A portion of the planning grant program was included in the Senate reauthorization bill, and Bennet and Warner will continue working to try to include the credit facility in the reauthorization bill through an amendment on the Senate floor.
The Livable Communities Act of 2011 (S. 1621) was introduced by Senator Menendez (D-NJ) with 18 Democratic co-sponsors. Like the Livable Communities Act introduced in the previous Congress, the bill would formally authorize the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities at HUD, and would fund grant programs for integrated regional planning and implementation activities. While the TOD planning program in the Senate reauthorization bill reflects some of the goals of the LCA, Senator Menendez is looking for opportunities to move the full bill forward, which will be increasingly challenging as the legislative session winds down in anticipation of the November elections.
Victory on Cardin-Cochran Amendment
Reconnecting America President John Robert Smith has been working closely with several national organizations to advance an amendment to the Senate transportation bill, known as the Cardin-Cochran amendment. The Senate bill, as proposed, sets aside a percentage of funds for a variety of smaller-scale, local transportation projects such as local street safety improvements, main street revitalizations, bus stop and rail station access improvements, and safe routes to school. These projects make a significant difference in people’s daily lives by making it easier and safer for them to get where they need to go. Unfortunately, the bill would give control over these funds directly to state DOTs, which could decide unilaterally what local projects to fund under this program, or could decide to use all of those funds for state purposes.
Recognizing that communities’ needs are best understood by the local officials who interact every day with the citizens they represent - attending the same church, shopping at the same grocery store, sharing the same roads, sidewalks, buses, and bridges – Smith worked to find strong champions in the Senate for an amendment to address this issue. Introduced by Senators Ben Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, and Thad Cochran, Republican of Mississippi, the “local control” amendment would give local officials a direct say in how this pot of funding is used, rather than leaving the decision-making entirely up to the state.
Due to an outpouring of support for this amendment from local communities around the country, the amendment has been accepted into the Senate bill, giving local communities more ability to invest in projects that will improve safety, accessibility, and quality of life for their residents.