Transportation Thursdays

February 21, 2019       View original email


What Lies Ahead on Infrastructure?

With the appropriations battle finally resolved for the remainder of the fiscal year (that’s 221 days of breathing room, for anyone counting), attention might finally turn to what Congress can accomplish on infrastructure. A few thoughts and observations in this regard:

  1. Timing is key. To have a chance, Congress would need to introduce bills by spring and pass them by the end of 2019, at the very latest. To avoid the crazy season of a presidential election year, the end of September would be a preferable target.
  2. Infrastructure Package vs. Transportation Reauthorization. A broad infrastructure package has allure for members in both chambers, but a broader funding package means more committees and stakeholders are involved. For this reason, recent talk is that the biggest effort may be to pass transportation reauthorization by the end of the year with some infrastructure sweeteners included (broadband is one we could envision) to expand the base of support for such an effort. It seems unlikely that Congress will do an infrastructure package AND a reauthorization in such close succession. And the probability is extremely low that a reauthorization gets done next year anyway (the current program expires on September 30, 2020), with the election in full bloom by then. Then we would be back to long-term extensions, which is not a popular idea.
  3. Gas Tax Increase? There is some hope Congress will increase the gas tax this year, either as part of an infrastructure package or a reauthorization. The odds don’t favor it happening, but a properly calibrated bill might pass. Sweeteners (mentioned above) and earmarks (mentioned below) could play a role in making a tough vote a little easier.
  4. Earmarks. Congressionally directed spending. Article 1 authorized spending. Call it what you like, restoring Congress’ ability to earmark small portions of spending bills is a hot topic again in Washington, with support from members on both sides of the aisle. There is wide agreement that earmarks would increase the chance of passage of an infrastructure bill (especially if it includes a gas tax increase) by giving Members of Congress some cover back home for a tough vote.

Appropriations Overview

The big news last week was the agreement on remaining appropriations bills. Now that the bill has been signed, here is a quick overview of relevant sections.

  • The bill fully funds FAST Act authorized levels for the second year in a row.
  • The bill contains discretionary supplementary funding, which is used to plus-up Trust Fund programs with general funds. This is the result of a two-year budget agreement before last year’s appropriations process. The total of this supplementary funding increased slightly from last year ($4.36B to $4.45B) but is being distributed quite differently.
    • The biggest winners are the Surface Transportation Block Grant Program (STBGP), which receives an additional $2.73 billion above the fully funded FAST Act levels (last year’s supplemental for STBGP was $1.98B); and Bridge Replacement Grants which receives $475M this year (after getting $225M last year).
    • The biggest losers are Airport Improvement Program discretionary grants ($500M less than last year); Significant Federal and Tribal Lands ($275M less); and Transit Formula Grants for State of Good Repair ($137M less) and Buses ($50M less).
  • The BUILD discretionary grant program (formerly TIGER) gets $600M less than last year, but last year was a high-water mark. The $900M committed to BUILD grants this year is still well above previous years, where funded amounts ranged from $474M to $600M.

Executive Order on Artificial Intelligence
Last week, President Trump signed an Executive Order (EO) titled Executive Order on Maintaining American Leadership in Artificial Intelligence. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a rapidly developing field of study and implementation that will impact not only our transportation system (in automated vehicle operating systems, for example), but will have much broader impacts over the medium- and long-term. A great Brookings Institution article spells out what the EO does (“increase access to federal data, provide financial support for R&D, enhance digital infrastructures, and improve workforce development”) and what is missing (funding and non-defense federal agency implementation).

Border Wall, Bullet Train: California vs. Trump Escalates
On Tuesday, the administration announced plans to cancel or rescind $3.5 billion in federal funding allocated for California’s high-speed rail project. California Governor Gavin Newsom pointed to the state’s involvement in a lawsuit over the president’s emergency declaration, as tensions between the state and White House heighten over the border wall. Estimated costs for the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles train have topped $77 billion, and Trump even went so far as to call it the “failed Fast Train project” that is “hundreds of times more expensive than the desperately needed wall.” If the administration succeeds in taking back the funding, it could potentially affect the distribution of funds to other transportation projects throughout the state.


An Innovative Approach to Public Engagement
Across the country metropolitan planning organizations are adopting new and unorthodox outreach techniques to further engage the public in how their tax dollars are spent. Many organizations are now spearheading efforts to ramp up public engagement through approachable events that help put the needs of the community at the forefront. Through pop-up kiosks, student groups and even graphic novels, agencies across the country are reinventing how they engage with communities while also learning ways to best serve them. This article highlights techniques used by Broward MPO and the North Jersey Transportation Planning Agency (NJTPA).

Hyperloop Continues to Dazzle
In the middle of the desert outside Las Vegas engineers are working on a project that could revolutionize mobility as we currently know it. Hyperloop One is testing a transportation system that moves people and cargo in pods at speeds exceeding 600 miles per hour and such a development means not only a faster commute, but also gives people broader access to educational, cultural and health services normally out of their reach. Developers expect pods to be critical in the transportation of low-weight cargo, offering an alternative to high-cost air transport and guaranteeing more timely deliveries. William Murdock, executive director of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, comments on the implications of this more connected cargo network, “To commute quickly between Chicago and Pittsburgh would be fantastic.” Virgin Hyperloop is currently working on a system that could connect Chicago, Columbus and Pittsburgh within the next decade.


View full list of jobs!

Assistant Planner
Posted: 2/19/2019
Puget Sound Regional Council, Seattle, WA

Director, Planning
Posted: 2/19/2019
Palm Beach County Planning Division, West Palm Beach, FL

Director, Information Technology
Posted: 2/13/2019
Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Washington, DC

Transportation Planner
Posted: 2/13/2019
Capitol Region Council of Governments, Hartford, CT

Principal II Transportation Planner/Engineer
Posted: 2/13/2019
Capitol Region Council of Governments, Hartford, CT

View full list opportunities!

Equity Analysis Data, Measures, and Methods for MPOs and Transit Agencies
February 20th, 2:30 PM ET
In this webinar, Dr. Karner, an assistant professor at The University of Texas at Austin in the Graduate Program in Community & Regional Planning, will discuss his work that aims to systemize and standardize equity analysis by identifying best practices and performing comparative assessments. He will present work relevant to both MPOs and transit agencies and will discuss broader trends in transportation equity research and practice.

Options to Further Leverage NPMRDS for Performance Measurement and Decision-Making
February 26th, 1:30 PM ET
 Join a webinar presented by INRIX & the University of Maryland’s CATT Lab where they will summarize additional NPMRDS-related data and tools uniquely available through their partnership. This webinar will focus on additional data and toolset options, and how they can be accessed (including an AASHTO Pooled Fund Study), to help states and MPOs get the most out of their NPMRDS-related efforts.

Art of the Map: Learn How to Craft Beautiful Maps in Minutes
February 27th, 1:00 PM ET
This interactive workshop will dive deep into cartography best practices and how to master map design in order to deliver clear insights to client and community stakeholders.

Making Travel Safer Using Pedestrian Safety Technologies
March 6th 1:00 PM ET
 The webinar will feature a discussion on current trends in pedestrian crashes and the importance of pedestrian safety application, including the development of vehicle-to-pedestrian (V2P) communication systems aimed at improving the safety and mobility of vulnerable road users.