Infrastructure Alert - January 8, 2014

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As 2014 begins, congressional appropriators are working on drafting and passing omnibus legislation (12 appropriations measures in one bill) to fund the government before the January 15 deadline. Meanwhile, the Water Resources Development Act/Water Resources Reform and Development Act conference continues. The current surface transportation authorization, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), will expire in 2014, and the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure has already scheduled a hearing to discuss the upcoming reauthorization.  A new report from the Tax Foundation finds that states pay the majority of what is spent on transportation expenses, but that gasoline taxes and user fees pay for only half of state and local road spending. In 2011, only 50.4 percent of state and local expenses were funded through highway user fees and user taxes.

ON THE HILL

Appropriations for the federal government expire on January 15. Legislators are currently working on a $1.012 trillion omnibus funding bill, essentially containing the 12 traditional appropriations bills within it, to fund the government in FY2014.

The Heritage Foundation released a list of 10 programs that it would like to eliminate in the upcoming appropriations bill, two of which are infrastructure-related. Heritage suggests eliminating the Transportation Alternatives Program, which it estimates will save $800 million, and eliminating the Essential Air Service program, which it estimates will save $200 million. The Transportation Alternatives Program funds projects such as sidewalks, bike paths, and nature paths from the Highway Trust Fund. The Essential Air Service program subsidizes commercial flights to and from rural airports.

Water Resource (Reform) Development Act conferences continue, and while there have been no public developments as to what the final bill will include or eliminate from the House or Senate bills, a release of the conference report is expected soon.

On January 14, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will hold a hearing titled, “Building the Foundation for Surface Transportation Reauthorization.” Witnesses will include Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, Caterpillar President Stuart Levenick, and Amalgamated Transit Union International President Larry Hanley. Their testimony and a stream of the hearing will be available here. Issues that are expected to arise during the process of passing a surface transportation reauthorization are transit tax benefits, whether to increase the national weight limits on trucks for the interstate highway system, President Obama’s and various congressional proposals for an infrastructure bank, and FMCSA requirements regarding truckers required break hours.

At the beginning of the new year, the commuter tax benefits for transit dropped and commuter tax benefits for parking increased after the expiration of a provision that brought parity to commuter benefits passed in last year’s fiscal cliff deal. Pre-tax commuter benefits for transit decreased from $245 monthly to $130, and pre-tax commuter benefits for parking increase from $245 monthly to $250. Several proposals were introduced before the new year to prevent this issue, and Congress may pass legislation that reinstates the parity that could include a retroactive fix.

Prior to the December recess, the Senate confirmed Alejandro Mayorkas as Deputy Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security by a vote of 54 to 41.

AT THE AGENCIES

Since the beginning of FY2013, the Department of Transportation has announced about $3 billion in Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loans and loan guarantees. The largest awards last year were a $1.6 billion agreement for the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York, a $474 million loan to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for the replacement of the Goethals Bridge, a $452 million loan for a bridge in Louisville, Ky., and a $275 million for reversible highway lanes for Atlanta.

The Federal Highway Administration has extended the application period for the Integrated Corridor Management Deployment Planning Grants, which was originally planned to end on December 31, 2013, to January 17. States, metropolitan planning organizations and local governments are intended to apply for deployment planning grants to promote the integrated management and operations of the transportation system and improve multimodal transportation system management and operations.

On December 30, the Federal Aviation Administration announced the six test sites for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) research. The drone research will help the FAA integrate UAS into the national airspace safely and effectively. The sites chosen are the University of Alaska, the State of Nevada, New York’s GriffisInternational Airport, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech).

The Government Accountability Office has released a new report titled “In-Car Location-Based Services: Companies Are Taking Steps to Protect Privacy, but Some Risks May Not Be Clear to Consumers.”

IN THE STATES

California: Following a recent court ruling that rescinded its funding plan and Members of Congress who have committed to block any future funding for the rail line without investigations of how funds will be matched by the state, the California High-Speed Rail Authority will be the subject of a California Senate hearing in February togauge the status of the project. The February 26 joint hearing, “California’s High-Speed Rail Project: How Should the State Safeguard the Public’s Interest?” will be examine the management and oversight of the project, as well as discuss the proper role should be for publicly employed inspectors of work completed by private contractors.

North Dakota: On December 30, a train crash and explosion occurred when a BNSF train hauling tankers of crude oil crashed into railcars pulling grain. The derailment was the fourth major derailment of 2013 involving a freight train transporting oil. On January 1, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a safety alert warning that the crude oil being transported from the Bakken region “may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil.” The PHMSA and the Federal Railroad Administration are currently investigating safety issues pertaining to the rail transportation of Bakken crude oil.

Texas: The Texas Department of Transportation has announced an $800 million plan to fund additions to I-10, US 281, and Loop 1604 in San Antonio region. The projects will include both non-tolled and tolled lanes, connectors and improvements to existing lanes. Construction is expected to begin in early 2015.