Oh, that “TIP” thing again.

Yup.  Summer is finally once again upon us, and in the world of transportation planning that means two things: heeere comes construction season… and that “TIP” thing where we line up projects for the next four construction seasons.

TIP stands for Transportation Improvement Program.  It’s an annually-updated document that allows Duluth Area communities to apply federal transportation funds to specific transportation projects.

For those of you who are policy-people or transportation wonks, the TIP document describes all the policies and processes involved.

But for those of you who are just interested in what local and regional projects are being planned for 2013 through 2016 (the big ones that use federal funds), they’re summarized by year in the project tables starting on page 8 of the draft TIP document.

But here’s just a few that might interest you:

  • City of Duluth – Connecting the Munger Trail to the Lakewalk (a.k.a. the Cross City Trail)
  • St. Louis County – Reconstruction of Haines Road (from W 8th St to Morris Thomas Rd)
  • Hermantown – Reconstruction of Stebner Road (from Maple Grove Rd to Hwy 53)

And if anything prompts you to ask questions, or causes a desire to comment, please do!

Tuesday, May 29th will be the start of an official public comment period that will last until Wednesday, June 27th.  The Duluth-Superior MIC encourages anyone interested in providing their input on the TIP or its projects to comment here or to contact us.

The MIC also plans to hold two “TIP Open House” hours from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, June 28th and Friday, June 29th.  This is a great opportunity to come visit us, look over some maps, and talk to staff in person about transportation projects in the area.

Transportation Breakdown

Normally, every five or six years our elected representatives in D.C. put aside their political differences to reauthorize the nation’s transportation program — including the fuel tax, for construction of roads, bridges, transit and bike and pedestrian infrastructure, and safety programs.

This is because our economy relies on transportation, and bridges and highways are not Republican or Democrat.  Everybody needs them.

The process has broken down

On March 30, Congress managed to avoid a shutdown of the nation’s transportation system by passing an eleventh hour extension of the current SAFETEA-LU legislation. This means  that thousands of highway and infrastructure projects, here and across the nation, won’t stall out this construction season.  Until June 30th, anyway.

Funding our transportation infrastructure via nine “temporary” extensions – one stopgap measure after another, since the original SAFETEA-LU expired in September 2009- is not the way to move forward.  The process has broken down.

The reason is simple: money

The major problem is the growing inadequacy of the federal gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993.  Not only are we attempting to build 21st-century infrastructure with 20th-century dollars, but also, as cars become more efficient, people need less fuel and pay less into the Highway Trust Fund.

With Congress bitterly divided, lawmakers can’t agree on where the additional funding should come from, although a number of ideas are being floated.

Legislative stalemate

For the past several months, the House attempted to gain enough support to pass a 5-year, $260 billion bill (the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act) that has new revenue incorporated into it via leasing and production fees from new oil-drilling rights on federal lands and coastal waters.  This funding mechanism, although favored by nearly two-thirds of Americans (according to a poll by the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection), failed to gain bipartisan support.

Another provision of the bill, which would have terminated guaranteed funding for public transit, failed to gain even Republican support in the House and as a result, the bill was doomed from the start.

The Senate alternative (MAP-21), a two-year program with a price tag of $109 billion — had bipartisan support but was not taken up by the House and is unlikely to move forward even though the clock is again ticking.

Reforms to control spending

And before asking taxpayers to pay more for roads, rail, bridges, and infrastructure, we must ensure existing funds are not wasted. Both bills include significant reforms to control federal highway spending.

Both of the Senate and House bills include provisions to make the project delivery process more efficient and both consolidate existing transportation programs by nearly two-thirds.

And many lawmakers rightly argue that states should be given more flexibility in how they can find creative ways to use federal dollars. Congress should give more encouragement to innovative approaches, including public-private partnerships that leverage private investment with public dollars.

Gas taxes or user fees are not on the table – but need to be

In the current political climate, no one in Washington is going to suggest an increase in the gas tax. Yet more revenue from that source – or from a mileage-based user fee – is an essential part of a solution.

Every transportation policymaker understands the potential long-term solutions to these near-term problems, but few are willing to push them forward because they involve difficult choices about how to raise more money for federal transportation programs.

Election-year politics

“We’ve just been caught up partially in election-year politics and partially in this whole battle that seems to trump and override our issue, which is the budget battle,” said Pete Ruane, president and CEO of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. “That’s going to be part of this debate every single time until they finally make some tough decisions about how to fund these programs.”

Congress has now bought itself until just before the July 4 recess to come up with a final agreement on a transportation bill — or enact another extension.

Hopefully, over the next 90 days Congress will work something out and maybe by the end of the year we’ll have a long-term bill.  But it’s also likely the issue won’t be settled until after the general election in November.

Everyone agrees on the broader goals of transportation policy and spending, which are economic growth and personal mobility. A long-term solution needs to be developed in a bipartisan fashion — and spearheaded by the administration — regardless of who is in power.

Co-writing credit: Rondi Watson

The Future of Transportation in One Word

Proposed Multimodal Terminal for Duluth, MNMultimodal.

Safe, efficient transportation depends on infrastructure that supports multiple ways of traveling from point A to point B.  Not just by road, but by air, water, rail, bus, bicycle and on foot.

Locally, there’s a forward-looking, multimodal project that the MIC has been a partner in developing for many years.

DTA-Multimodal Terminal street viewDuluth Multimodal Transportation Center

Public taxpayer investments, more than ever before, are being called upon to serve multiple goals.  The proposed Duluth Multimodal Transportation Center does just this. It will provide a centrally located transportation hub that serves the City, the northeast region, and the state.

The state of the art facility will serve passengers of the Duluth Transit Authority’s local bus service as well as passengers of inter-city bus services.  Both Jefferson Lines and Indianhead Transit as well as local providers LCS (private) and Arrowhead Transit (public) will be using the facility.  It will add parking for commuters and provide space for rental cars and taxi operations, as well as secure bike parking.  Pedestrian and bicyclists will be connected to the downtown area, convention center, and waterfront trails via replaced skywalks and concourses.  The transit area will take advantage of all the DTA’s state-of-the-art technology and provide riders with real-time information and other amenities in a safe and secure area.

It’s being developed in response to documented needs. The existing DTA transit center on Superior Street requires improvements to increase safety and security, to improve the effectiveness of the current and future transportation demand, and to provide connectivity to the overall transportation system.

DTA-Multimodal Terminal - new skywalk connectionPublic-Private Partnerships

The project includes upgrading portions of the aged Northwest Passage Skywalk with an improved design, easier connections, and potential retail commercial potential.

Working with non-profit, private owners, community partners, current and future tenants of the facility will strengthen the value of the facility.  The DTA will work with a private partner on this project and will use the design/build concept of construction to rapidly complete the project.

State Bonding Bill

This project is being put forward as part of Minnesota’s proposed 2012 bonding bill, to appropriate $6,000,000 to create jobs and invest in the multimodal transportation needs of tomorrow.

Interconnected, multimodal transportation options encourage economic growth, reduce congestion and environmental impacts, and improve mobility and access to transportation for both people and goods.

For these reasons, there’s lots of support for this project at the local and federal levels.  Let’s make sure we support our state lawmakers to see this bonding bill through and see these benefits happen here in Duluth.

The Long and Winding Road

How a bill becomes a law - graphic

Political gridlock in Washington has resulted in years of legislative limbo in dealing with our nation’s aging infrastructure.  But something needs to happen by March 31, when the eighth (!) extension of the SAFETEA-LU federal surface transportation bill expires.

Transportation legislation

In a possible sign of progress, both the House and Senate have pledged to take action on the reauthorization process, which sets the laws, priorities and spending levels for federally-funded transportation projects and programs for the next several years.  And indeed there has been a lot of Congressional activity this past month and even this past week.

But reaching agreement on what exactly will be included in the new transportation bill—and how to pay for it—is a convoluted process.  Enacting a bill by the end of March will require that both the House and the Senate negotiate no fewer than ten procedural hurdles and more significantly, overcome deep political and philosophical differences.  And from what we’ve seen just this week, there are plenty of differences to reconcile.

Good news, bad news

The House released its version on January 31st, a five-year, $260 billion, 800-page surface transportation bill known as the “American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act.”

From our perspective, the proposed legislation contains some good news in that it is favorable to existing MPOs such as the MIC so that we can continue our work to plan, prioritize and coordinate federally-funded transportation projects with local input.

Of concern to us, however, is that funding for the Safe Routes to School program is eliminated, along with the Transportation Enhancements (TE) program and “complete streets” projects that make infrastructure improvements for bikers and pedestrians in addition to cars.

Certainly important to all MPOs, these funding categories would be turned over to the discretion of state DOTs to decide if and how they are continued.  Essentially, states would have the option of spending money on these types of projects, but would no longer be required to.  As the League of American Bicyclists commented, “it basically eliminates the status and standing <of the bicycling community> in the planning and design of our transportation system—a massive step backwards…to a 1950s highway- and auto-only program.”

Then, also troubling, the House Ways and Means Committee weighed in with a proposal to eliminate gas tax funding for bus transit and other mass transportation systems.  Transit, Air Quality Improvement, Congestion Mitigation and other programs would be placed into a renamed Alternative Transportation Account and would need to be funded annually through the general fund and annual appropriations process.

Bipartisan support

Non-auto oriented transportation programs, however, do have a measure of bipartisan support, which up until recently has been how our country has made its important transportation infrastructure investments.  Several House Republicans, led by Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) with backing from Democrats, attempted to amend the draft bill to restore funding for bike and pedestrian projects and Safe Routes to School.

And the Senate has so far managed to reach bipartisan agreement on their version of the bill. A two-year, $109 billion reauthorization, called Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century or MAP-21, passed the Environment and Public Works Committee last month.  The transit component of that bill was released by the Senate Banking Committee with unanimous bipartisan support for public transportation programs at current funding levels and includes some reforms — such as allowing federal funds to be spent on operations — that transit advocates have been pushing for.

The sticking point: how to pay

You may have heard by now that the House’s bill, in addition to cutting some transportation programs to pay for the reauthorization, proposes a new source of revenue in the form of royalties from new oil and gas drilling leases on public lands and federal waters.  This, however, is a contentious issue and may or may not make it into the final bill during the step when the House and Senate reconcile their two versions into a final bill.

It also extends the federal gas tax at the 1993 level of 18.3 cents-per-gallon (as well as the 24.4 cents-per-gallon diesel tax and the .001 cents-per-gallon leaking underground storage tank tax) for the next five years.

Pressure at the state level

Much of the pressure to pay for the problem of the nation’s aging bridges, highways, and transit systems will fall to the states. Most—like Minnesota and Wisconsin—are refocusing their priorities on preserving and maintaining the existing system rather than constructing new roads.

Although states may consider raising their portion of the gas tax, or automatically increasing the existing rate for inflation, finding new ways to fund transportation will require innovation, new technologies, and smarter management practices to ensure their scarce resources address the key problem areas.

MnDOT is conducting studies on new user-fee mechanisms that assess fees based on how many miles you drive on the roads rather than how much gas you put in your tank.  Other states are considering expanded use of tolling and state infrastructure banks.

Unpopular at the personal level

And many of these new options may be downright unpopular.  As we noted previously, it’s not just our politicians who will need to make some attitude adjustments.

No matter how long it takes for Congress to hammer out a new transportation bill, and despite the cuts it will make or efficiencies it will impose, all of us, as beneficiaries of the transportation network, will need to be willing to make a shift in how we think about paying our way.

Photo credit: http://www.cyberlearning-world.com