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Climate Change

Transit Industry and State DOTs Agree: Senate Climate Bill Needs ‘Rewrite’

8:37 AM PDT on May 20, 2010

The transit industry's leading D.C. lobbying outlet joined the
umbrella group for state DOTs yesterday and two major construction groups to
protest the Senate climate bill's failure to set aside all of the
revenue from its proposed new fuel fees for infrastructure projects --
specifically, to the cash-strapped highway trust fund that is generally
split, 80-20, between roads and transit.

030210_Senate_climate_bill_full_600.jpgSens.
Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), center, and John Kerry (D-MA), right, with
onetime climate bill cosponsor Lindsey Graham (R-SC) at left. (Photo: CSM)

American Public Transportation Association (APTA) chief William Millar told reporters that while the local transit agencies he represents are "very supportive
of legislation to address climate change and energy issues," the Senate bill's diversion of all but about $6 billion of its fuel revenues for purposes unrelated to transportation is a matter of serious concern.

"This is one of those cases where we really can't even talk about the merits of any
portion of the bill because the fundamental position is flawed," Millar said.

Referring to the legislation's promise of funding for the clean transport and land-use grants known as "CLEAN TEA" and TIGER,
he added, "Many of those are very good ideas … but you can't make those
ideas work if there's no significant funding to make them work, and
this bill would aggravate the funding situation for public transit."

John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO),
was more direct in outlining where state DOTs want to see the Senate
climate bill's fuel revenues directed. "Channel[ing] every dollar
through the highway trust fund," he said, would help the industry break
through a congressional stalemate and win passage of a new six-year federal transport bill.

Stephen
Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors, and Pete Ruane,
president of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association,
echoed Horsley's interpretation of the new fuel fees in the climate
bill -- which are imposed on oil companies and refiners but are likely
to be passed along through higher gas prices -- as a de facto "user fee" on drivers.

The
climate proposal, Ruane said, does "nothing more than finance a lot of
goals, which are enviable in part, on the backs of transportation
users."

It remains to be seen whether the transportation
industry's combative stance against the partial diversion of the bill's
transportation revenue, billed as a "call for a rewrite" of the climate
legislation, will help force senators into restructuring the measure.
Ruane said he "like[s] the odds" facing the four groups.

But
a spokesman for Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) said that APTA, AASHTO, and 25
other industry groups mis-estimated the amount of revenue set aside for
transportation in a letter outlining their concerns that was sent today
to Kerry and his chief climate bill co-sponsor, Sen. Joseph Lieberman
(I-CT).

“Let’s get the facts
straight," Kerry spokesman Whitney Smith said via email. "This bill invests more than $6 billion annually in transportation
infrastructure, which is more than any other comprehensive energy and climate
bill and more than twice what's claimed in this letter. In effect, the letter
advocates a policy that would accelerate emissions from the transportation
sector and increase our dependence on foreign oil. That's not good for anyone,
especially consumers."

One
congressional source was befuddled by APTA's move to "bit[e] the hand
that feeds them" by criticizing a climate bill that stands to give
broad, lasting benefits to rail and bus systems.

“Perhaps
these groups are confused about the purpose of the climate bill: It’s
to reduce emissions, not increase them," the source told Streetsblog
Capitol Hill. "The Kerry-Lieberman bill invests more money in
transportation than any of the previous climate bills. Instead of
working constructively to increase that investment, they are biting the
hand that feeds them. Why is APTA advocating for a strategy that will
decrease the amount of climate money going to transit? Transit makes
out like a bandit in the Kerry-Lieberman bill.”

APTA's alignment with AASHTO and the construction industry groups marks a split of sorts from the Transportation for America (T4A) infrastructure reform coalition, which has praised
the upper-chamber climate bill's focus on investing in clean transport
projects while taking no official position on the legislation as a
whole.

The Senate climate plan provides "a new source of
revenue" for transportation, T4A spokesman David Goldberg said in an
interview. "This is not a gas tax, and it's not conceived of as a
supplement to the highway trust fund, for whatever the
business-as-usual, run-of-the-mill highway trust fund projects are."

How
big would that new source of transportation revenue be, relative to the
total amount raised by the Senate climate bill's new fuel fees? APTA
and AASHTO claim in their letter that more than three-quarters of total
fuel fees would be used for non-infrastructure purposes:

In2013, fees from on-road fuel consumption [under the climate proposal]would generate at least $19.5 billion.  Instead of returning revenuefrom these fees to improving the transportation system, the billdiverts at least 77 percent of the funds away from transportationinfrastructure investment. As carbon prices increase, the bill divertsas much as 91 percent of fuel revenues.  Of particular concern, thebill limits new investment in the Highway Trust Fund to $2.5 billionper year, far below the amount the bill raises from system users. 

As
Kerry's office pointed out, however, the industry groups' math appears
to lowball the amount of funding set aside for transportation. The 77
percent estimate would yield an annual pot of less than $4 billion,
while Kerry and Lieberman have estimated that transport would receive
upwards of $6 billion during the first several years after their
legislation takes effect.

(ed. note. This post was updated to add comment from Kerry's office.)

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