Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Congress Sends Highway Trust Fund Patch To Obama

            As we predicted earlier, early Saturday morning the Senate passed the House approved extension of Federal Highway Trust Fund expenditures through July 31. The fund authorization was set to expire May 31, and President Obama is expected to sign the bill on his desk, to avoid stopping work on innumerable federally funded road construction projects this summer.
            However, the Highway Trust Fund will run out of money in late July or early August. Congressional leaders do not expect any long term extension legislation until year end action by the House Ways and Means Committee on a comprehensive tax reform bill, according to House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Bill Schuster. Congress will have to appropriate about $5 billion to keep highway projects going through September, and $10 billion to keep them funded through year end.

            American Automobile Association Vice President for Public Affairs Kathleen Bower blasted the inefficiency and high cost of the now 33 temporary surface transportation funding extensions: “It’s almost like a payday loan,” she said in a May 19 press briefing. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Highway Trust Fund “Patch” Isn’t Even A Band-Aid

            Tuesday’s House vote of 387-35 to pass HR 2353, which is expected to pass the Senate by tomorrow and be signed by President Obama before the current, and very temporary, surface transportation funding measure expires May 31, will be the 33rd stopgap measure enacted in the last six years. HR 2353 will extend Highway Trust Fund appropriations at current levels only until July 31. Ironically, six years has been the customary duration of Highway Trust Fund appropriations. However, because Congress lacks the guts to increase the motor fuel tax rate to bolster revenues declining due to better gas mileage mandated by CAFÉ legislation, legislators and the administration continue to disagree on new methods of replenishing the Highway Trust Fund, and prospects for agreement on another six year appropriation bill remain in limbo.
            House leaders and construction trade groups back a $401 billion six year funding measure, supported by a motor fuel tax hike from the current 18.4 cents per gallon to 33.4 cents per gallon, while Senate leaders and the Obama administration favor a six year, $478 billion appropriation, with as yet unspecified funding sources. Meanwhile, California, Indiana, Oregon and Washington are in various phases of experimentation with alternate taxes on miles driven rather than gallons burned as a way of replacing declining motor fuel tax revenues for maintaining transportation infrastructure. The Oregon experiment is farthest along. Beginning July 1, as many as 5,000 volunteers in that state will begin participation in a pilot program collecting 1.5 cents per mile driven, as measured by odometer devices or GPS software on their vehicles, and receiving reimbursement for fuel taxes collected at the pump, as well as credit for miles driven on private property and out of state.
            Oregon officials have worked with the ACLU on measures to protect driver privacy while Oregon government gathers records of miles driven via GPS mapping, but the complexity of tracking miles driven on private property or out of state suggests the “pay by the mile” tax will not be readily transferrable to federal revenue generation. Meanwhile, opposition to state wide adoption of the Oregon experiment is growing among those who see it as a strong disincentive to the purchase of environmentally friendly hybrid and electric vehicles.

            Time alone will tell whether there is any politically acceptable solution to the problem of paying for maintenance and expansion of America’s aging and crumbling transportation infrastructure, but once again, the passage of HR 2353 means time is very, very short.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

June 3 Hearing To Air Opposition to CTA Brown Line Flyover Construction

            Opponents to the Chicago Transit Authority’s $570 million project to build a 45 foot high overpass carrying the Brown Line’s northbound light rail tracks over the northbound and southbound Red Line tracks and the southbound Purple Line tracks just north of Clark and Belmont will get the opportunity to voice their concerns about the four year long construction project at a hearing scheduled for 6:30 p.m. June 3 at the Center on Halsted, 3656 North Halsted Street, Chicago. To complete the congestion relieving and transit capacity enhancing project, CTA will need to acquire 21 real properties, including 16 existing commercial and residential buildings in the neighborhood, as well as moving the historic Vautravers Building 29 feet west of its current location at 947-949 West Newport Avenue.

            CTA’s brand new President Dorval Carter Jr., who just arrived in town from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration, numbers the Brown Line Flyover as among CTA’s top construction priorities. Though the FTA has said it supports the flyover concept, this far it has only funded environmental studies required to launch the effort. CTA has not secured any funding source for the costs of actually building the overpass. Opposition to the project is led by neighborhood resident Ellen Hughes, whose home is slated for condemnation to make way for the overpass construction.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Passenger Rail Construction – Speed or Safety?

            The Federal Railroad Administration boasts on its website that it makes available $10.1 billion in funding, together with its 33 partners in state governments and the District of Columbia, for construction of high speed intercity passenger railway projects, yet more than seven years after Congress mandated installation of Positive Train Control technology on existing rail passenger and hazardous freight rail routes, the federal government has not appropriated a single dime of funding to provide for safety of rail passengers in the Boston/Washington corridor, or for those citizens living in the vicinity of railbeds which daily carry tons of flammable and otherwise hazardous cargo around our nation. Following the May 12 fatal derailment in Philadelphia, FRA Acting Administrator Sarah Feinberg ordered Amtrak to implement the simple expedient of installing more speed limit signs along the northbound tracks where the train traveling over 100 m.p.h. flew off a curve. In her statement announcing this initiative, Feinberg described the speed limit signs as “just initial steps” toward preventing similar disasters in the future.

            If there is no money for installation of PTC technology along existing railroad rights of way where millions of citizens already ride the rails at speeds up to 100 m.p.h, how can we expect new intercity railroad routes built to handle even greater train speeds to be safe when they are in service?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

April 23 Vote Ends Illinois Tollway Guarantee of Union Labor for Construction

By a vote of 6 to 3 the Illinois Toll Highway Authority’s board on April 23 decided against continuing its project labor agreement which has required construction contractors working on Tollway projects to use union labor exclusively, introducing the potential for strikes and other job actions which could delay progress on the Tollway’s completion of its 15 year, $12 billion reconstruction and widening program.

Tollway construction contracts awarded after May 1, 2015 will no longer be under the project labor agreement, in which construction trade unions have promised since 1994 not to strike or engage in slow-downs on Tollway projects. Besides the blow to the wallets of workers on Tollway projects, this policy change will most likely seriously inconvenience millions of Chicago area commuters who face a growing threat of ongoing traffic jams at locations where job actions could leave construction barricades and lane closures in place far longer than they could have remained if the project labor agreement had been renewed.

Federal Surface Transportation Appropriations Still Stalled

With the current expiration date on short term federal surface transportation funding of May 31, 2015 rapidly approaching, state and local governments are once again facing the prospect of stalled road, bridge, waterway and rail construction projects while Congress attempts to find a new source of funding for long term infrastructure upkeep. Lagging revenues from the motor fuel tax need to be augmented with higher rates or new sources of money, and meanwhile the Obama administration’s $478 billion, six year “Grow America” appropriation bill remains stalled in Congressional committees on Capitol Hill.

Vice President Biden’s speech Monday to kick off Infrastructure Week notwithstanding, it seems highly unlikely there will be any Congressional action on long term federal funding for surface transportation projects at any time soon. Short term extensions of the National Highway Trust Fund appropriations will most likely continue until after our next presidential election.

Construction Employment Still Lagging

According to data released last week by the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment in the nation’s construction industry continues to lag behind the U. S. economy in general, with national unemployment at 5.4%, while unemployment in the nationwide construction industry still stands at 7.5%. With skilled jobs in the construction trades representing one of the mainstays of middle class American prosperity, lagging unemployment in the construction industry is one of the significant economic factors holding back growth and progress for the American middle class.