Earth Day 2019: Regional Councils are Gearing Up for Bike to Work Events

Happy Earth Day! Regional councils across the country are celebrating today by spreading information on environmental issues and earth-friendly activities.

One of the activities that councils are promoting today is bicycle commuting. National Bike to Work Day will be held May 17th, and many councils have biking events planned either on the 17th or another date in May and June.

As both transportation and environmental planners can tell you, transportation leaves a significant environmental footprint. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 29% of greenhouse gas emissions originate from the transportation sector.

Each commuter who chooses to bike to work and keep a car off the road lowers emissions. Each individual trip adds up, and studies indicate that even a moderate increase in biking trips can create a significant regional impact.

Check out the events below to see how regional councils are planning and supporting regional Bike to Work and Bike Month initiatives.

Hosting your own Bike to Work event? Send your stories to eli.spang@narc.org or use the hashtag #RegionsLead on social media!

Regional Bike to Work Events:

Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG)

On May 17, MWCOG’s Commuter Connections program is partnering with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association for their annual bike to work event. The first 20,000 Bike to Work registrants will receive an event T-shirt that they can pick up at one of the 115 pit stops that will be set up throughout the greater DC area. The pit stops will offer refreshments and a raffle for a new bike. More information can be found on the event site.

Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG)

Colorado’s weather can be unpredictable in May, so the State of Colorado declared the fourth Wednesday of June as Bike to Work Day (June 26). DRCOG’s Way to Go program convenes city and county governments and local organizations to plan the event, which aims to educate commuters on the benefits of biking. The event features pit stops, food, group rides, apparel, and awesome posters.  

Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC)

HGAC holds a Bike to Work event on May 16, and also celebrates the entire month of May as Bike Month. As commuting only makes up a portion of all trips, H-GAC also uses Bike Month to encourage other biking trips to go to schools, libraries, and restaurants; and to visit friends and family.

North Central Texas Council of Government (NCTCOG)

NCTCOG also celebrates Bike Month. This includes a Bike to Work Day on May 17 and multiple local Bike to Work and Bike with the Mayor events. NCTCOG also uses Bike Month to encourage use of TryParkingIt.com, their ride-match and trip-logging program, which helps commuters in the region match up with transit, biking, and walking buddies.

The Clean Water State Revolving Fund: An Update

On March 6th, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Peter DeFazio introduced the Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act of 2019 (H.R. 1497), which would reauthorize the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) program.

The following day, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Water Subcommittee discussed CWSRF reauthorization in a hearing titled “The Clean Water State Revolving Fund: How Federal Infrastructure Investment Can Help Communities Modernize Water Infrastructure and Address Affordability Challenges.”

Recent actions and statements by members of Congress on both sides of the aisle indicate an interest in both moving an infrastructure package forward and including water infrastructure in that package. This reopening of discussion on CWSRF reauthorization prompts a review of the current state of the CWSRF and the potential opportunities and challenges presented by reauthorization.

CWSRF Background

The CWSRF dates to 1987 when Congress amended the Clean Water Act (CWA) creating a capitalization grant program to finance infrastructure for sewage treatment and water quality improvement. Prior to 1987, Congress funded public wastewater infrastructure using a direct grant program that would cover 55% and 75% of construction costs for qualifying public projects.

The CWSRF program was developed with the intention of transitioning to a system in which state and local governments would cover 100% of wastewater infrastructure financing. Congress set the target date of this transition as fiscal year (FY) 1995 – a date coinciding with the expiration of the CWA’s original authorizations in 1994 – and authorized the program for $18 billion to be distributed between fiscal years 1987 to 1995.

Unresolved funding needs and administrative challenges prevented the realization of a complete transition to state and local funding as the program reached the end of its authorization in FY 1995. While the CWSRF has not been reauthorized since then, Congress has continued appropriating funds for the program. Annual appropriations amounts through FY 2018 can be seen in the table below.

Table 1: Clean Water Appropriations FY 1987 – FY 2019

Source: CRS Funding for EPA Water Infrastructure: A Fact Sheet

How Does the CWSRF Work?

All 50 states as well as Puerto Rico currently participate in the CWSRF program. The EPA provides capitalization grants that serve as seed funding the each state’s revolving fund. States then use their funds to issue loans, buy local debt, and issue guarantees.

The primary benefit of CWSRF loans is the below-market interest rates that they provide to states. In 2017, the average interest rate of CWSRF loans was 1.4%, significantly lower than the market rate of 3.5%.

More information on the program with details on loan issuance and leveraging can be found in the EPA’s SRF Fund Management Handbook.

Repayments and interest earned from outstanding loans return to the states revolving funds and are then used to develop new loans. States are also able to increase financing capacity by leveraging their funds and issuing fund-backed bonds. The figure below shows how leveraging has increased the impact of federal dollars provided to the program.

Figure 1: Leveraging of Federal Capitalization Grants

Source: EPA CWSRF 2017 Annual Report

Proposed Reauthorization Legislation

The bill introduced on March 6th, the Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act of 2019 (H.R. 1497), would authorize $23.5 billion in wastewater infrastructure investment over the next five years, with $20 billion dedicated to capitalization of the CWSRF. Under this authorization, Congress would be able to appropriate up to $4 billion per year for the program. This would be more than double recent CWSRF appropriations, which totaled $1.39 billion in FY 2017 and $1.64 billion in FY 2018.

CWSRF reauthorization legislation has been introduced before, but has never passed. The most recent effort was made during the 115th Congress with the Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act of 2017 (H.R. 2510). Compared to previous years, H.R. 1497 has an increased chance of passage as both Congress and the Administration have identified infrastructure as a priority for the 116th Congress and indicated an interest in developing bipartisan legislation on the subject.

Funding Challenges for the CWSRF

Funding the CWSRF program presents a significant challenge for lawmakers. While other infrastructure domains like surface transportation benefit from user-driven revenue streams like the federal gas tax, an equivalent has not yet been identified for water infrastructure.

One recently proposed bill would increase the corporate income tax rate from 21% to 24.5%, sending $35 billion a year to a water trust fund that would be used to fund the CWSRF. Another proposal, introduced during the 115th Congress, would create a water trust fund by allowing businesses that produce bottled products to voluntarily pay a $0.03 per unit fee in exchange for the right to place a label on their products indicating their commitment to clean water resources protection.

Despite consensus that water infrastructure investment needs to be increased, all reauthorization proposals that require increased spending of general funds are likely to cause disagreement among lawmakers. Consequently, the identification of other sources of revenue would increase the chance of successful passage of a CWSRF reauthorization.

Reauthorization Potential in 2019

There are indications that CWSRF reauthorization legislation may gain traction as a part of the broad effort to develop infrastructure legislation during the 116th Congress. Recent congressional hearings and comments by House leadership and the Administration show that support exists on both sides of the aisle for moving infrastructure legislation forward and funding water projects.

Uncertainty remains, however, and this uncertainty is encapsulated well by the Administration’s recently released FY 2020 budget which cuts the CWSRF program budget by $600 million, while also providing a $200 billion placeholder for “additional infrastructure investments” that would likely include water infrastructure investment.

Official Waters of the United States Proposal Released, Comment Period Open

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Army Corps of Engineers have officially released a revised definition of “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) which determines the scope of federal regulation under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The comment period for the revision will be open until April 15, 2019. The revised definition and comment submission information can be accessed here

What would the redefinition do?

The redefinition would create six categories of regulated waters and eleven categories of exempted waters.

The six categories that would be regulated:

  1. Traditional navigable waters, including the territorial seas;
    1. The previously separated categories of “navigable waters” and “territorial seas” would be merged, but regulation of these waters would not be altered.
  2. Tributaries that contribute perennial or intermittent flow to such waters;
    1. Tributaries would not include any surface features that only flow as the result of precipitation. Ephemeral flows like dry washes and arroyos would be excluded.
  3. Certain ditches;
    1. Only ditches that also satisfy the conditions of the tributary definition, and ditches constructed in an adjacent wetland would be included. 
  4. Certain lakes and ponds;
    1. Lakes and ponds that satisfy the conditions of traditional navigable waters would be included.
    1. Lakes and ponds that contribute a perennial or intermittent flow to other jurisdictional waters would also be included.
  5. Impoundments of otherwise jurisdictional waters; and
    1. The redefinition would not alter the regulation of impoundments.
  6. Wetlands adjacent to other jurisdictional waters.
    1. Wetlands would satisfy the requirement of adjacency if they “abut” or have a “direct hydrological surface connection” with other jurisdictional waters.

The eleven categories of waters that would be exempted:

  1. Waters or water features that are not identified in the six categories of regulated waters.
  2. Groundwater, including groundwater drained through subsurface drainage systems.
  3. Ephemeral features and diffuse stormwater run-off.
  4. Certain ditches.
  5. Prior converted cropland.
  6. Artificially irrigated areas that would revert to upland if artificial irrigation ceases.
  7. Certain artificial lakes and ponds constructed in upland.
  8. Certain water-filled depressions created incidental to mining or construction activity and pits excavated for the purpose of obtaining fill, sand, or gravel.
  9. Stormwater control features excavated or constructed in upland to convey, treat, infiltrate, or store stormwater run-off.
  10. Wastewater recycling structures constructed in upland.
  11. Waste treatment systems.

The background of WOTUS

The definitions of “Navigable Waters” and “Waters of the United States” have changed multiple times since the creation of the CWA in 1972. The most recent redefinition occurred in 2015 and expanded CWA scope, including increased jurisdiction regarding ephemeral water features and water features adjacent but lacking direct hydrological connections to jurisdictional waters.

Source: Environmental Protection Agency

Since its introduction, the 2015 definition has faced litigation regarding its validity under the Constitution and the CWA. As a result, the rule has been blocked in 28 States and is currently only recognized in 22 States, the District of Columbia, and U.S. Territories. In states where the 2015 rule is blocked, the EPA’s less-inclusive 1988 definition of “Waters of the United States” remains in effect.

On February 28, 2017, President Trump signed the Executive Order “Restoring the Rule of Law, Federalism, and Economic Growth by Reviewing the `Waters of the United States’ Rule.” This order began the process of developing the currently proposed redefinition. The intention of this redefinition as stated in the Executive Order is “to ensure that the Nation’s navigable waters are kept free from pollution, while at the same time promoting economic growth, minimizing regulatory uncertainty, and showing due regard for the roles of the Congress and the States under the Constitution.”

The official revised WOTUS definition was released on February 14, 2019 and the comment period on the rule will be open until April 15, 2019. The latest fact sheets, infographics, supporting documents, information on the revision can be accessed here on the EPA’s website.

2018 End of Year Summary

In 2018, NARC advocated on your behalf on Capitol Hill and with the Administration, fostered innovative partnerships between members and with national organizations, and highlighted your daily successes. With active support from members like you, NARC has fostered better connections between members, increased our programming, and expanded our scope throughout the country.

The political landscape is more divided than ever, but NARC will continue to bridge divides with a regional perspective in 2019. The coming year will be another important opportunity to expand the role of regions in transportation, infrastructure, environment, public safety, and human services.

As we prepare for what lies ahead, we took a look back at a few of NARC’s many successes in 2018, successes that were only possible as a result of your generous and ongoing support.

Federal Advocacy
NARC continued to engage and connect with congressional staff as the go-to organization to address concerns that cross jurisdictional boundaries. NARC established relationships with federal agencies and acted as a resource on issues ranging from alternative fuel vehicles to broadband. NARC held a series of summer legislative briefings to keep you up to date on federal issues, including automated vehicles, the Farm Bill, the Federal Communications Commission, and integrated planning.

Rural Economic Development Innovation (REDI) Program
Emphasizing partnerships and innovation, NARC collaborated with the National Association of Counties Research Foundation (NACo) on a USDA grant supporting rural economic development. In October, NARC and NACo were awarded $139,000 to implement economic development plans and projects. We will steward applicants through capacity-building workshops, mentorships, and webinars.

Fleets for the Future
In 2018, NARC wrapped up our Department of Energy-funded Fleets for the Future (F4F) project. F4F harbored many successes in its 2.5 years, including the creation of best practices guides and templates for alternative fuel vehicle procurement and the development of several regional and national cooperative procurement contracts. Read more about the project and its accomplishments in our condensed F4F Final Report.

Membership Committee
This year, NARC established a membership committee to recruit new members and improve engagement with current members. This member-driven committee encouraged new regional voices to share their ideas, challenges, and best practices amongst the NARC membership. Since the committee was formed, at least eight regional councils have become NARC members.

Major Metros Roundtable
NARC continued to work with the Major Metros Roundtable (MMR), a member-directed and member-supported group that meets regularly to discuss challenges and solutions that are particular to regional councils in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. In 2018, MMR held three in-person half-day meetings in conjunction with NARC’s three conferences in addition to monthly hour-long conference calls which highlighted an individual issue on each call – including transportation, public safety, resiliency, and more.

Sharing Best Practices
To highlight your groundbreaking work, NARC featured best practices, innovations, and creative solutions during our three conferences, in our weekly newsletters, and through monthly webinars. NARC continued to update the repository of best practices from the Rapid-Fire Innovation session at the Executive Directors Conference. Transportation Thursdays and eRegions provided updates on regional council activities and accomplishments across the country. Our webinars and conferences invited members to share their work firsthand and encouraged others to ask questions and bring these ideas back to their own regions.

MWCOG Celebrates 10 Years of Climate Action

On November 14th, NARC staff attended Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ (MWCOG) most recent Climate, Energy, and Environment Policy Committee meeting at MWCOG offices. The Committee met to celebrate ten years of climate action since MWCOG adopted their regional program on climate change in 2008. Additionally, Dr. James Kinter, Director of the Center for Ocean-Land-Atmosphere at George Mason University, gave a presentation on climate change and risks posed to the Metropolitan Washington region. Lastly, the Committee spent time discussing the next ten years of climate action, including identifying what goals and actions may be needed to address climate change in the region.

In 2007, MWCOG’s Board of Directors celebrated its 50th anniversary and at the same time came together to discuss the next fifty years. Recognizing global climate change as a defining force in the decades to come, the Board adopted Resolution R31-07, creating a regional climate change initiative. The program would include developing a greenhouse gas inventory, setting regional goals, identifying best practices for reducing emissions, advocating policies at the federal and state levels, making recommendations on regional climate change policy, and creating a steering committee to guide the initiative. In 2008, MWCOG’s Board of Directors approved the National Capital Region Climate Change Report, which includes significant greenhouse gas reduction targets for the region and 78 recommendations to help area leaders and citizens meet the targets. Since then, MWCOG has been involved in a number of national and regional partnerships, programs, and other efforts aimed at addressing climate change.

Following this portion of the meeting, Dr. Kinter provided attendees with an in-depth look at climate change and the risks it poses to the Metropolitan Washington region. He presented evidence of human-caused climate change and discussed the major sources of carbon dioxide emissions and where that carbon dioxide ends up. Furthermore, he showed some of the possible scenarios – developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – for future global temperature change based on the various levels of action taken by the world’s governments to address emissions. He then discussed the risk that climate change poses to Washington, D.C. and how effects such as increased nuisance flooding have already been witnessed in the region.

Finally, the Committee brainstormed goals and actions that may be needed to address climate change over the next ten years. Some actions included net-zero public buildings, solar power purchase agreements (PPAs) on government buildings, electric municipal and public school buses, getting rid of diesel buses, increased development of electric charging infrastructure, and more widespread use of Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing programs.

During closing statements, there was an emphasis on “acting quicker because the damage is coming quicker.” Many Committee members made remarks that there needs to be a realization of the economic benefits of climate action and that jobs such as those in solar installation are top in the country. Lastly, the Committee complimented MWCOG on its role over the last ten years and on its continued commitment to regional climate action over the next decade.

To view documents from the meeting, please visit MWCOG’s website.

What’s in the President’s Proposal to Reorganize the Federal Government?

This is the first in a series of three blogs dealing with aspects of the president’s federal reorganization plan. It is based, in part, on a recent NARC Wednesday Legislative Briefing that was held on the president’s reorganization plan on Wednesday, August 7.

On June 21, the president released his plan to reorganize certain parts of the executive branch. If adopted by Congress and implemented by the president, it would touch virtually every agency in the federal government and the way Americans receive government services.

The following are proposals that would have the most significant impact on regions:

The Department of Education and the Workforce

The president’s proposal would merge the Departments of Education and Labor into a single department. The new Department of Education and the Workforce would include four separate agencies focusing on four different issue areas: K-12 education, enforcement of worker protections, workforce and higher education, and research and administration.

The American Workforce and Higher Education Administration, one of the four new agencies, would be charged with ensuring U.S. workers possess the skills necessary to succeed on the job. This agency would bring together workforce development programs from the Employment and Training Administration at the Department of Labor and higher education, vocational education, and rehabilitation services from the Department of Education.

The Department of Health and Human Services

The proposal would also reshuffle other domestic agencies and would make it possible, according to the White House, to revamp agencies and, where Congress agrees, reduce funding. Social safety net programs – including housing from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and other welfare programs from the Department of Health and Human Services, and nutrition programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Association Program (SNAP) from the Department of Agriculture — would be consolidated under a new Department of Health and Public Welfare which would replace the current Department of Health and Human Services.

Other Proposed Changes

If the president’s proposal is adopted and implemented there would be many other potential changes, including:

  • Transferring of the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program to the Department of Commerce into a new economic development agency (more detail will be provided on this in an upcoming blog post);
  • Privatizing the Postal Service;
  • Creating a government-wide public-private partnership office to “improve services to citizens”;
  • Relocating more staff and offices outside of the National Capital Region (Washington, DC and its Virginia and Maryland suburbs);
  • Consolidating food safety functions into a single office within the Department of Agriculture;
  • Moving USDA’s rural housing activities to the Department of Housing and Development;
  • Shrinking the Office of Personnel Management and sending some of its functions to the Department of Defense;
  • Privatizing the FAA’s air traffic control services and the Saint Lawrence Seaway; and
  • Revamping the Army Corps of Engineers by dividing its functions between the Department of Transportation (navigation) and the Department of the Interior (flood control, wetland permitting, and management of inland waterways).

Why Is this Reorganization Plan Being Proposed Now?

Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, a former member of Congress, and a founding member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, was the main architect of this plan. As a member of Congress, Mulvaney had argued for merging human services programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), housing assistance, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), among others, under a single umbrella agency. He has also argued strongly that the federal government needs to be streamlined and that past efforts have been unsuccessful. This proposal would allow the administration to create a new umbrella department for all welfare programs. Whether these proposals would streamline government remains to be seen.

Over the next two weeks, in two new blogs, we will explore what it would mean to the future of CDBG to transfer it to a new economic development agency within the Department of Commerce and what the likelihood is that Congress would adopt this or any reorganization plan.