May 31: Eau Claire Public Listening Session for Transportation Finance Commission

The Wisconsin Commission on Transportation Finance & Policy will hold a meeting and Public Listening Session in Eau Claire on Thursday, May 31, at Sacred Heart Hospital. There will be a Public Officials session from 3:00-4:00 p.m., and an open session for the public from 5:00-7:00 p.m.

According to the WisDOT website, The Wisconsin Commission on Transportation Finance and Policy was created in the 2011-2013 biennial state budget. The legislation called on the Commission to examine issues related to the future of transportation finance in Wisconsin, including the following:

* Highway maintenance, rehabilitation and expansion projects
* Local aid and assistance programs, including general transportation aids (GTA)
* Transportation fund revenue projections
* Transportation fund debt service
* Options to achieve balance between revenues, expenditures and debt service
* Impact of highway project planning on abutting property

The Commission has a study period of 10 years and is required to submit a report to the Governor and state legislative leadership by March 1, 2013.

There is also a link on the site to presentations at previous meetings and listening sessions.

An impetus for the forming of the Commission is the perfect storm approaching transportation funding in coming years, with declining gas tax revenues but increasing needs. Among appropriate comments to make to the body are anticipated trends and needs in Wisconsin transportation in the coming years, as well as how funding needs can be met. The February 16 meeting minutes and resources include a presentation by WisDOT staff projecting four different scenarios for 10-year funding needs. However, in the staff view even the most ambitious scenario assuming “Multi-Modal Enhancements” sees virtually no expansion in the role of passenger rail service over the next 10 years.

If you’re interested in providing remarks during the Public Listening Session, WisDOT says interested speakers will be asked to register at the meeting and will be called on to speak in the order in which they register. Remarks will be limited to 5 minutes, but unlimited written comments will also be accepted. For written comments, the Commission suggests providing 15 written copies for commissioners, and another 20-30 copies for the public.

The Commmission’s meeting and listening sessions will be held at the Community Auditorium at Sacred Heart Hospital, 900 W. Clairemont Ave., Eau Claire 54701.

Amtrak outlook: Running between Chicago and Dubuque by 2015

While Wisconsin’s once-leading plans to expand passenger rail are now on hiatus, other neighboring states continue to plan for new trains. Here’s an update from a Rockford Register-Star columnist on plans to restore Chicago-Rockford-Dubuque service:

By Chuck Sweeney

DUBUQUE, Iowa — George Weber, who heads the passenger rail division of the Illinois Department of Transportation, says passenger train service between Chicago and Dubuque, stopping at South Elgin, Rockford, Freeport and Galena with a possible stop in Lena, is on target to start in late 2014 or 2015.

Speaking at a meeting of the Tri State Alliance on Friday, a regional transport coalition among governments and chambers of commerce in eastern Iowa, southwestern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, Weber said the Canadian National Railway will have its cost analysis done in August, about six months later than it was supposed to be done.

The state has set aside $60 million to improve the freight-only line to a 79 mph speed limit. Weber said it’s important that the train be speed-competitive with the automobile.
Right now, the estimated time of five hours and 10 minutes is too slow, he said.

“The goal is to equal the time of the original Black Hawk,” Weber said. The Black Hawk’s route between Chicago and Dubuque took about four hours and 15 minutes.

That train ran from 1974 to 1981 and was discontinued, he said, because of declining ridership and poor on-time performance by the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad, which is now part of Canadian National.

Steve Ernst, who heads the Rockford Metropolitan Agency for Planning, asked Weber whether the new train’s name will be The Black Hawk, as the old train was named.

“Is there a better name?” Weber asked.

“No,” Ernst said.

“Then we’ll go with that,” said Weber. “It’s The Black Hawk.”

Passenger rail is historically the orphan child of IDOT, but not now. “We’re managing $4 billion in projects,” Weber said, including improving speeds between Chicago and St. Louis to 110 mph, equivalent to the speed of passenger trains in the 1950s and 1960s that were run by the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio.

IDOT is also developing passenger service between Chicago and the Quad Cities. Iowa transportation leaders hope to extend it across the state to Omaha, Neb., but there’s currently no funding for that part of the project, said Tammy Nicholson, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation’s rail office.

Weber said Illinois and California are ordering 130 new, bi-level passenger cars, all except 40 of which will go to Illinois trains. The new Black Hawk could feature the new cars, provided they’re not too tall to fit in the East Dubuque tunnel, Weber said. “I don’t think that will be a problem,” he said.

The daylong meeting took place in the historic Hotel Julien in renovated downtown Dubuque.

Reach Senior Editor Chuck Sweeny at 815-987-1366 or csweeny@rrstar.com.

Tour the Talgo Trains You Might Never Ride

From the Eye on Milwaukee blog By Jeramey Jannene at urbanmilwaukee.com – May 17th, 2012

The elegant Talgo trainsets ordered by the Doyle administration for the Amtrak Hiawatha are nearly complete. But will they ever be used?

Alas, Sunday is quite possibly the only day you will ever get to go inside them. Tours, children’s activities, and refreshments will be available at the Talgo assembly facility from noon until 3 p.m. on Sunday, May 20th. The facility is located in the Century City redevelopment area at 3533 North 27th Street. Off-site parking is available, with MCTS Routes 27 and 80 getting you there as well.

If you can’t make it Sunday, the trainsets are also currently visible from south side of the facility on W. Townsend Avenue between 27th and the railroad bridge.

Strategically ordered before federal high speed rail grants were announced, the purchase contract pushed Wisconsin to the top of the list and netted Wisconsin $810 million to extend the Hiawatha to Madison and buy more trainsets. Governor Walker’s campaign against the poorly marketed train resulted in the federal government re-appropriating the funds to other states.

The trainsets face an uncertain future following the State Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee decision to cancel funding for a permanent maintenance base for the equipment. It remains unclear if the state will put the trainsets into service utilizing the temporary maintenance base (the assembly facility), or mothball the trainsets once they’re complete (potentially violating their contract with Talgo).

Hopefully someday the trainsets will be in use in Wisconsin. Until then I’ll just shake my head at the insane series of decisions taken merely to score political points. I do look forward to seeing our former high-speed rail funds at work when I take the Amtrak Lincoln Service, a corridor being upgraded to higher speed rail, to St. Louis this summer.

The Wall Street Journal doesn’t like transit, your grandparents

From the National Association of Railroad Passengers April 18, 2012

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board is extraordinarily adept at finding new and unique ways to be disappointing in their views on transportation.

Let’s look at their Sunday editorial, Why Your Highway Has Potholes:

“What’s missing is any new thinking. Clear evidence of inefficient transportation spending comes from a new Treasury study estimating that traffic gridlock costs motorists more than $100 billion a year in delays and wasted gas. In cities like Los Angeles, commuters waste the equivalent of two extra weeks every year in traffic jams. This congestion could be alleviated by building more highway lanes where they are most needed and using market-based pricing—such as tolls—for using roads during peak travel times.”

The Wall Street Journal goes on to place the blame for the failure of the Highway Trust Fund on public transit (you know an editorial board has veered off track when they start citing figures from Wendell Cox and the Heritage Foundation).

Let that sink in: the problem with the Highway Trust Fund isn’t the fact that Congress hasn’t raised the gas tax since 1993, and hasn’t even pegged it to inflation; it’s that it’s spending a portion of the funds on public transit.

That is why the Highway Trust Fund is in trouble. We’re driving less per capita, and we’re using more fuel-efficient vehicles to do the driving.

The Wall Street Journal says Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wants an America without cars. But while they’re busy beating up their straw-man, sensible Americans are dealing with the real transportation problem: while cars and roads will continue to be the primary mode of transportation, people are sick of being forced into their car for each and every errand and trip. No one at the U.S. DOT really wants to abolish highways, but they are working hard to make sure Americans have options—that communities are connected by more than just highways. And the following counterfactuals provide ample evidence that Americans are ready for choice:

Between 1995 and 2010, public transportation ridership by 31 percent—almost double the 17 percent growth in population.
A recent study done by U.S. PIRG found that from 2001 to 2009, the annual number of vehicle miles traveled by people 16 to 34-years-of-age dropped from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita—a 23 percent decrease.
Senior citizens often choose transit because it is their last link to the outside world. Almost 31 percent of transit trips in rural areas are made by older Americans.
Transit enriches the lives of senior citizens; 2004 study found that seniors 65 and older who no longer drive—compared with drivers of the same age—make 15% fewer trips to the doctor, 59% fewer trips to shop or eat out, and 65% fewer trips to visit friends and family.
As the U.S. population continues to get older on average, this reliance will only increase—Transportation For America estimates that by 2015, more than 15.5 million Americans 65-and-older will live in communities where public transportation is poor or non-existent.

Americans are demanding a balanced approach to transportation policy, and reverting to a roads-only approach will leave too many people stuck in traffic when all they want is to pop out to the store and get a carton of milk.

But even worse, abolishing transit funding will strand millions of men and women who helped build America into a great country. They deserve better.

Click here for the full article, including charts and links

Poking Holes in the WSJ’s Transportation Editorial

By Janet Kavinoky, US Chamber of Commerce
Free Enerprise blog April 16, 2012

The next time the Wall Street Journal editorial board decides to reprint talking points from the Heritage Foundation they might endeavor in some fact-checking. In today’s Wall Street Journal piece, the editorial board offers a menu of reasons why the federal government shouldn’t be involved in transportation investment including the inequities it creates between states, saying that Western and Southern states get less than they pay in. In reality, from 2005-2009, each and every state received more back from the Federal government than they contributed in user fees to the Highway Trust Fund according to the General Accountability Office. This is because instead of keeping Highway Trust Fund revenues – which are largely derived from the federal gas tax – in line with federal commitments, Congress has chosen to periodically transfer general funds to keep the investments afloat.

Even when the Trust Fund was flush with cash, Western and Southern states generally made out much better in their Return on Investment (ROI) than heavily populated states on the Eastern corridor. While the donor-donee debate captures the imagination of many members of Congress when these laws come up for renewal, the whole argument misses the forest for the trees. The reason for this “inequity” is national connectivity, which in turn supports domestic and international trade, national security, emergency preparedness and interstate mobility – all important national objectives.

We also strongly disagree with the notion that investment in transit is an unserious, utopian enterprise. While the Chamber does not ascribe to most of the Department of Transportation’s livability initiative, we strongly believe that transit is a critical means of addressing congestion and driving economic development in many areas around the country. Addressing congestion is an incredibly complicated challenge that often requires a menu of logistical options. Building roads and congestion pricing are both valuable tools, but so too is transit. From 1995 through 2008, public transportation ridership increased by 38%—a growth rate higher than the 14% increase in U.S. population and higher than the 21% growth in the use of the nation’s highways over the same period. Without public transportation, congestion costs would have been an additional $13.7 billion.

With regard to economic development, every $10 million in capital investment in public transportation yields $30 million in increased business sales and every $10 million in operating investment yields $32 million in increased business sales. It’s no coincidence then, that most of the nation’s major transit operations are situated in areas with heavy congestion and often in close proximity to international ports. Just ask groups like Mobility 21, a business-led coalition that works to advance transportation solutions in Los Angeles and surrounding areas.

While we at the Chamber agree with the Wall Street Journal’s assessment that the federal programs need a great deal of reform and the permitting process needs some serious simplification, we believe the federal government plays an important and necessary role in infrastructure investment. Many of our nation’s conservative visionaries agreed, including Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan. Even today, some of the most vocal opponents of federal spending recognize the importance of transportation investment. Rep. Paul Ryan points out in A Roadmap for America’s Future that transportation is a core government responsibility: “Governments must provide for a limited set of public goods: they must build roads and other infrastructure, foster the protection of property rights, and maintain internal and external security… this ‘core’ government spending tends to foster economic growth.”

Instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the Chamber would like to see Congress work together to advance a serious bill that eliminates eligibility for expenditures that aren’t in the national interest, focuses dollars on core road networks and freight systems, invests in making commutes faster and more efficient, requires performance management and accountability in state and local decision making, speeds up project delivery, expands project financing options, creates incentives for private investment, and lays the groundwork for a sustainable revenue model that enables investment levels aligned with needs. For the sake of near- and long-term job creation, stronger economic growth, and enhanced U.S. competitiveness, the Chamber strongly supports robust surface transportation reauthorization legislation that addresses revenue shortfalls and includes necessary and urgent policy and program reforms.

Click here for the full posting, including links.

US House clears short-term transportation bill with Keystone pipeline mandate

By Ben Geman, Russell Berman and Keith Laing in The Hill April 18, 2012

Defying a White House veto threat, the House on Wednesday passed legislation that extends transportation program funding through September and mandates construction of a controversial oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

All but 14 Republicans, with support from 69 Democrats, voted 293-127 for legislation that falls far short of Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) earlier plan to move a sweeping five-year, $260 billion package.

But Boehner’s retreat serves two crucial tactical and political purposes for the Speaker. It sets up talks with the Senate on the highway bill and keeps the Keystone pipeline — a centerpiece of GOP attacks on White House energy policy — front and center ahead of the November election.

Republican leaders hailed the bipartisan vote as a rebuke of President Obama. Two senior Democrat leaders, Reps. James Clyburn (S.C.) and John Larson (Conn.), approved the measure.

“The House is on record again in support of the Keystone XL energy pipeline — a project President Obama blocked, personally lobbied against, then tried to take credit for, and now says he’ll veto,” Boehner said in a statement. “There’s no telling where the president stands from one day to the next on Keystone, but he knows the pipeline has broad and bipartisan support in Congress and among the American people.”

The House and Senate transportation committee chairmen said they hoped conferees would be appointed quickly.

“The purpose of this extension is that we can hopefully bring about resolution and conference legislation to complete our transportation bill,” Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Wednesday.

A number of key Democrats also said they were supporting the plan as a way to get to a House-Senate conference.

“It appears that the House has finally found the path out of dysfunction junction,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “We’ve been there too long.”

The bill creates another clash with the White House over the Keystone pipeline — a project at the heart of the Republicans’ energy agenda and their election-year attacks against the president.

Obama, facing divisions in his political base, has delayed a permitting decision on the project until after the election and threatened to veto the House bill over the pipeline language.

The House vote continues what has been a difficult path forward for transportation program funding, which often has bipartisan support.

Congress last month enacted a 90-day extension of highway programs before it left for a two-week recess, and the Speaker had hoped to use the break as one more chance to win support for the five-year transportation bill he has been pushing for months over objections from his conference.

Yet it was clear as lawmakers returned this week that Boehner had not succeeded.

“If I had my druthers, H.R. 7 would have been on the floor six weeks ago. But there weren’t 218 votes to do this,” Boehner told reporters, speaking of the failed five-year package. “You’ve heard me talk about allowing the House to work its will. It’s not about the House working my will. The House ought to be allowed to work its will. And when it came to this bill, the House decided they didn’t want to vote for it.

“So you have to go to Plan B, and Plan B is on the floor today, and I’m hopeful we’ll be in conference soon.”

The Senate last month passed a two-year, $109 billion transportation bill with bipartisan support, but House Republican leaders oppose it because it does not contain their favored reforms for highway programs. Boehner wants to link revenues from expanded domestic energy production to infrastructure spending.

The Speaker’s goal now is to win as many reforms as he can during a conference committee negotiation centered on the Senate measure.

The new strategy caught some Republicans by surprise.

Conservatives on Tuesday had complained that they hadn’t seen the new highway extension, and aides and lawmakers said the leadership was not formally whipping support for it.

Ten Republicans voted against the 90-day extension the House passed before the recess, but a few of those members said Wednesday they were open to the latest extension because of the addition of the Keystone provision and plans to initiate talks with the Senate.

“This extension I’m trying to support because I’ve been told this is our vehicle to move things forward, to get a longer-term bill and to get something in terms of an agreement from both chambers,” Rep. Robert Dold (R-Ill.) told The Hill.

Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) cited concerns in the construction industry about the uncertainty of short-term extensions, but said he might support the latest House bill because it could lead to a deal with the Senate.

“I think the whole idea here is to force some sort of compromise, where we get something out of it that we wouldn’t otherwise,” Fleming said.

Still, there was widespread doubt that any long-term highway bill was likely to get done before the November election.

“I don’t see how you get a bill before the election, but stranger things have happened,” said Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), a critic of the GOP leadership’s initial transportation proposal. “Maybe lightning will strike and they’ll come up with a conference report.”

LaTourette said he hoped a compromise would be “the Senate bill dressed up.”

Similarly, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Wednesday that he doesn’t see Congress passing a multiyear bill before the November elections, instead predicting more short-term extensions.

“There will not be a bill before the election,” LaHood said. “I wish I could say we’ll get a transportation bill [in the next six months], but I know we won’t.” He has chastised Republicans for adding what he called unrelated provisions like the pipeline.

Republicans have hammered the White House for failing to approve Keystone, calling it a missed chance to create jobs and boost energy security.

“There is not a more shovel-ready project than the Keystone XL pipeline, period,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said Wednesday.

The project is tricky politics for the White House. Environmentalists bitterly oppose the pipeline due to greenhouse gas emissions from Canadian oil sands and other effects, while a number of major unions back it.

It’s uncertain whether Obama will get a chance to use his veto pen on the final package. The Senate in March turned back an amendment to its transportation bill that would have permitted the pipeline, so the new Keystone provision might not survive the conference negotiations.

But a conference could advance other priorities — including a long-term goal of Gulf Coast lawmakers from both parties.

Both the Senate and House package would steer 80 percent of what are expected to be billions of dollars in Clean Water Act penalties from the BP oil spill to the Gulf Coast for restoration.

Click here to read the full article, including additional links.

Eau Claire Chamber: May 7 Luncheon with WisDOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb

Monday, May 7, 2012
12:00-1:15 p.m.
Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce
101 N Farwell St

From the Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce: Join us for lunch with Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb as he gives a department update including: the new WI Transportation Finance and Policy Commission, and the MAPSS performance dashboard to track the state’s transportation network in mobility, accountability, preservation, safety and service. The Secretary will also touch on area projects, economic development and answer transportation-related questions. Cost to attend is $20 for members and $30 for non-members (payment in advance is required for non-members). To register, call the Chamber at (715) 834-1204 or use our on-line registration .