Honolulu Rail Project May Benefit from Transportation Authorization Bill’s Passage

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City's rail rendering

The House and Senate approved a compromise transportation reauthorization bill today known as H.R. 4348, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, or MAP-21, which passed the House today by a vote of 373 to 52.

Congresswoman Mazie Hirono, D-HI, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, supported the measure. She said in an email statement today: “This bill ends nearly three years of gridlock that has held up needed reforms and renewal of our highway and transit laws.”


She added: “Despite the bill’s shortcomings, you don’t have to look far to see that our roads, highways, and transit systems across the country need fixing. We must continue to invest in the upkeep and improvement of our transportation systems so that our families can travel safely and businesses can transport goods efficiently. This bill moves the ball forward on that important goal, which is vital to supporting our economy.”

But not everyone supports the bill as passed.

Transportation and planning expert Randal O’Toole, who has consulted with Hawaii businesses about transportation and planning issues and has appeared on Hawaii Reporter Television, argues the compromise “is laden with far more pork than the House bill that fiscal conservatives rejected earlier this year” and “overall it is a major loss for those wishing to downsize government.”

In total, about $1.9 billion a year will go to New Starts and Small Starts spending for transit capital improvements, which can include rail or bus rapid transit. The bill will keep  highway and transit spending at around the 2009 levels, O’Toole said, or about $12 billion a year more than is collected in gas taxes and other highway user fees.

Because of this bill’s passage, Hawaii could receive New Start funding for its planned elevated steel on steel rail project. However, there are no specifics in the bill about Honolulu’s rail project or any other rail project, O’Toole said.

U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, is seeking $250 million in New Starts Funding, but Republicans in an Appropriations Sub Committee cut that funding to $100 million in recent weeks. The final authorization is still in negotiations.

In an analysis of the bill, O’Toole writes: “On the positive side, the compromise includes a House proposal to streamline the environmental review process, which has kept many worthwhile transportation projects bogged down in red tape. It also reduces the number of transportation programs by consolidating some and eliminating others. It avoids both the earmarks and mandatory spending that were in past bills. The bill also excludes the Bingaman anti-public-private-partnership amendments to the Senate bill.

“On the negative side, the bill also includes many provisions from the Senate bill that expand government powers and spending. Some of these provisions, such as funding for public-land counties in the West, have nothing to do with transportation but were tacked on to the bill by pork-seeking members of Congress looking for a bill that was nearly certain to pass to include their favorite programs. Congress also included student loan and federal flood insurance programs in the bill.”

O’Toole said two “contentious items” were left out of the bill.

“Liberals wanted to reauthorize the Land & Water Conservation Fund, which provides money for federal agencies that already own more than a quarter of America to buy more land. Conservatives and property-rights activists managed to keep that out of the bill. House leaders were holding out for a provision mandating approval of the Keystone pipeline, but failed to get the Senate to agree,” O’Toole noted.

Spending is not mandatory, O’Toole said, so appropriations committees will have the opportunity to spend less than is authorized, and even to reduce spending to no more than is taken in.

Here is a breakdown from O’Toole’s report on the AntiPlanner of some of the major programs in billions of dollars:

Program                2013        2014

State highways        $37.5       $37.8
Federal highways        1.2         1.2
TIFIA                   0.75        1.0
Transit formula funds   8.5         8.6
Transit capital funds   1.9         1.9

“State highways” includes money transferred to states for highways; “Federal highways” includes money spent on roads in national parks, tribal lands, and other federal lands. Some of the state highway money can be spent on “transportation alternatives,” such as bike paths and transit, at the discretion of states and metro areas. The above list excludes many programs including safety, research, and emergency funds.