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Jul 11 2011

Sunday Train: Chairman Mica to Cities ~ Screw You

(10 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Burning the Midnight Oil for Progressive Populism

Chairman Mica says:

this proposal maximizes the value of our available infrastructure funding through better leveraging, streamlining the project approval process, attracting private sector investment, and cutting the federal bureaucracy, … Most importantly, this six-year proposal provides the stability states need to plan major transportation improvements and create long-term jobs.

Decoding that, Chairman Mica is saying: “Screw You, Cities”.

And of course, a bit of “screw you countryside” too, since those votes can be taken for granted.

The Dot Points Decoded

Streamlining & Reform

  • Streamlines the project delivery process by cutting bureaucratic red-tape, delegating more decision making authority to states, allowing federal agencies to review transportation projects concurrently, and setting hard deadlines for federal agencies to approve projects.
  • Reforms the surface transportation programs by consolidating or eliminating approximately 70 programs that are duplicative or do not serve a federal purpose.
  • No longer requires states to spend highway funding on non-highway activities, but permits them to fund those activities if they so choose.
  • Provides states the flexibility to fund their highest project priorities, but holds them accountable for those decisions through performance measures.

The real bureaucratic red tape in transport, the FRA regulations that impose unnecessary costs and substandard performance on urban and intercity rail systems are untouched. So the “red tape” being addressed here would entail things like being prevented from build roads that are not designed to kill pedestrians and cyclists, having to show a real economic benefit to more funding of our massive new highway building boondoggles when we can’t maintain the roads we already have, and the like. “Flexibility to states” means that states can dump as much of the federal funding they receive into highway boondoggles as their state highway departments (sometimes misleading called “State Department of Transport) can finagle. Holding them accountable typically means preventing them to spend money in ways that benefit poor and urban populations when there are suburban and rural interests to be served.

Better Leveraging

  1. Provides additional funding for the TIFIA loan program to meet demand for low interest loans for transportation projects.
  2. Allows states to toll new lanes on the Interstate System, while ensuring that existing Interstate lanes remain toll-free.
  3. Encourages states to create and capitalize State Infrastructure Banks to provide loans for transportation projects at the state level.

This means, (1) putting a small amount into transit project finance if the local area taxes itself to contribute to our nation’s future, (2) getting more money poured into the road building boondoggle without using Federal money to do so, (3) and ditto from number 2.

Highways

  • Distributes nearly all federal highway funding to state DOTs through formula programs designed to preserve existing highways, build new highway capacity, and address congestion, freight mobility, and highway safety.
  • Focuses the federal highway program on the Interstate Highway System and the National Highway System – the highways that facilitate interstate travel and interstate commerce.

Shelters highway funding from having to show the positive economic return on investment that transit and intercity rail projects must show, and pulls funding out of state highways that are much of the limited benefit that urban areas gain from the highway trust funds, and from the county and township highways that rural areas depend on heavily, to concentrate the reduced funding on suburban areas.

Transit

  • Removes current barriers that prevent the private sector from offering public transportation services.
  • Provides more of a focus on transit programs that benefit suburban and rural areas and will improve transit options for the elderly and disabled.

Remove obstacles to lining private pockets with public money, and remove the limited transit funding counterbalance to the massive urban cross subsidy to highways serving suburban and rural areas by taking transit funding away from cities and putting it into suburban transit subsidies.

Highway and Motor Carrier Safety

  • Prioritizes safety funding by holding highway and motor carrier safety programs harmless from any spending cuts in the bill.
  • Ensures that federal regulators keep unsafe trucks and buses off the road while allowing companies that operate in a safe and responsible manner to continue to do so.

When the “focus on safety” involves specifying which safety programs are not cut, that obviously means there is to be no progress made in improved highway and especially truck freight safety in the proposed six year authorization.

Rail Transportation

  • Improves access to the underperforming Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) program.
  • Expedites project review process and streamlines project delivery.

Top line dot points that would normally be in the details section implies rail gets didley and squat.

Maritime Transportation

  • Ensures that Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund revenues are invested as intended in maintaining the nation’s harbors, not tied up in a federal budgetary shell game.
  • Expedites Corps of Engineers permit processing to reduce project backlog.
  • Encourages short-sea shipping by eliminating double taxation on vessels transporting freight between domestic ports.

The first seems to mean that with the widening of the Panama Canal, Florida’s two main harbors will want expansion, and the money in the MHTF needs to be focused on projects “like that”. The second sounds like forcing the Corps of Engineer to be lax in permit processing rather than giving them the staffing to do the job right. The last sounds suspiciously like an effort to undermine US flag carriers in domestic maritime freight, but I don’t know much about maritime freight, so will be interested if anyone can fill that in.

Hazardous Materials Transportation

  • Achieves greater safety through regulatory certainty and uniformity.
  • Reduces regulatory burdens that do not enhance safety.

This sounds more like protecting the safety of the freight company’s bottom line than protecting the communities through which hazardous freight passes.

Overall: The Republican Proposal

Mica wants to write the six year authorization now, when there is a big Republican House majority, since even a slender Republican House majority might be vulnerable to the log rolling that is possible in a transport authorization.

Infrastructure deficit? Forget bridging it.

Energy Independence? Forget pursuing it.

Brawny Recovery? The way to speed up the economy is to slam on the brakes.

This is a proposal with (1) many ambit claims, include focusing as much of the funding cut as possible on urban transport (2) many individual items that the Chairman hopes to slide through as attention of urban Democrats is focused on defending against the reckless attack on urban transport funding contained in the ambit claim and (3) some political baseball bats that the Republicans hope to use to beat the Democrats over the heads during the course of the “negotiations”.

A Counter-Proposal?

I know this is just silly, blue sky dreaming, but I’d like to see the counter-proposal do the same damn thing: include some ambit claims, some points the Democrats are trying to slide through in the midst of the fight, and some political bats to hit the opposition over the head with in the course of the “negotiations”.

One thing is clear: the Democrats ~ whether in the Senate or the House ~ are having so many of their constituents hammered so very hard in the Republican proposal that they have very little to lose from a “short” authorization that gets very little done. When the name of the strategy of the other side is “do maximum damage to your constituents”, then “getting little done” is by no means an unattractive Plan B.

Ambit Claim: Take Mica’s $6b for Tollway Boondoggles and direct it to sensible long term investment. Take the Infrastructure Fund funding in Chairman Mica’s Bill and crank it up to serious levels. The Railway infrastructure lending only gets streamlining of approvals processes, while the Highway RIF to provide subsidized public finance to private Tolled Interstate lane construction is slated for $6b. Allocate the $6b to Rail and Highway RIF combined, with eligibility driven by Total Benefit and Total Cost of each project.

Ambit Claim: Repeal $4b in Oil Company Subsidies to fund High Speed Rail. No, of course it won’t get through a Republican House, but they don’t have to expend effort in fighting it unless its put into the Senate version.

Ambit Claim: Impose $10b in finance transaction finance and fund energy independence electric transport. Again, the House will take it out again, but force them to fight it, rather than surrendering up front.

Baseball Bats: Fix It First. Mandate that states must spend 100% of their formula funding spent on roads on bringing existing federally funded highways and bridges up to a state of good repair until at least 90% of their existing federally funded highways and bridges are in a state of good repair. (NB: in image, a field hockey stick stands in for a baseball bat.

When you need to score political points against an opponent bent on sabotaging the country’s future in service of today’s vested interests, Fix It First is a great bat. It is easy to say, hard to yell over top of, and many ordinary motorists are eager to hear it. It doesn’t directly undermine the yellow bellied surplus suckers in the road building industry, but it undermines many of their co-boondogglers who are focused on getting the capital gains from holding property where the next expressway exit is put in, and never mind the fact that the state cannot afford to maintain the roads it already has.

Slidethroughs: Update the FRA passenger rail regulations from the WWII era into the 21st Century. I’m not a transit blogger as such, but transit blogger Alon Levy has recently gone into some detail on regulatory reforms that would permit substantially greater bang for the intercity and local passenger rail buck. And its awfully hard for the House to get on their deregulation bandwagon and then reverse gears and fight to retain regulations that are convenient for their Big Oil sponsors in terms of preventing energy efficiency gains in rail transport and financial efficiency gains to leverage that energy efficiency.

Slidethroughs: The Steel Interstate. Since we know what a Steel Interstate needs, and we know what a Steel Interstate offers, we can in fact sneak Steel Interstate funding into Mica’s proposal. In the “encouragement of State Infrastructure Banks”, we need an ability to form a multi-state Infrastructure Bank for interstate transport corridors. Above, the pooling of Highway and Rail Infrastructure Fund lending can be leveraged by permitting these State Infrastructure Banks to borrow from the Federal Infrastructure Bank for projects that contribute to National Defense Strategic Transport needs. And finally, allow states to allocate up to 10% of Highway Formula funding on State Infrastructure Bank projects that reduces the maintenance cost imposed on Interstate, National and State Highways by interstate truck freight.

This is not, of course, a Steel Interstate program as such. But it permits any group of states that have a long enough length of Dept. of Defense STRACNET rail corridor to convert into a Steel Interstate to proceed with the project, borrowing ahead on future Highway Formula funding to get the work started immediately.

So, what’s your reaction …

… to Mica saying “Screw You” to the cities … for what appears the mortal sin of hosting too damn many Democratic voters.

Midnight Oil ~ Beds are Burning

1 comment

  1. BruceMcF

    … as you get ready to fight back against the entrenched vested interests …

    … don’t neglect to say Amen.

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