Friday, December 17, 2010

Fiscal Realities Addressed

The Government Accountability Office addresses the current best of times and worst of times for transit - how systems are dealing with increasing in ridership at the same time that costs are going up and public dollars are in short supply. Transit Agencies’ Actions to Address Increased Ridership Demand and Options to Help Meet Future Demand discusses not only the current situation, but also demographic changes, such as a more urban America, popularity of transit and an aging citizenry, that will contribute to expanding ridership for a long time.

In terms of costs, the report examines the expenses of greater demand for transit and the inability of cash-strapped governments to supply the necessary funds. Attention is given to the pleas of transit staff to use funds to maintain a state of good repair. Likewise, streamlining of paperwork for federal programs is also discussed. On a positive note, operators with newer infrastructure and assets are heeding the lessons of old systems that require more funds for maintenance as they age.

Fiscal Report

The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform's final report, The Moment of Truth, explicitly addresses transportation and recommends a 15-cent increase in the gas tax. But it goes further, calling for smarter spending.

Under current law, the Transportation Trust Fund has hybrid budget treatment in which contract authority is mandatory, while outlays are discretionary. This hybrid treatment results in less accountability and discipline for transportation spending and allows for budget gimmicks to circumvent budget limits to increase spending. The Commission plan reclassifies spending from the Transportation Trust Fund to make both contract authority and outlays mandatory, and then limits spending to actual revenues collected by the trust fund in the prior year once the gas tax is fully phased in. Shortfalls up until that point would be financed by the general fund.

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Congress must limit spending from trust funds to the level of dedicated revenues from the previous year. Before asking taxpayers to pay more for roads, rail, bridges, and infrastructure, we must ensure existing funds are not wasted. The Commission recommends significant reforms to control federal highway spending. Congress should limit trust fund spending to the most pressing infrastructure needs rather than forcing states to fund low-priority projects. It should also end the practice of highway authorization earmarks such as the infamous Bridge to Nowhere.

Not discussed were strategies for making sure better transportation choices, who should make them, performance measurements and mode splits.

The Commission recommends a cap on discretionary outlays, but really seems to desire a different approach to spending. For example, in terms of emergency response, the report suggests a planned budgetary response, instead of ad hoc after-disaster-hits spending. I quote at length here.

Any given disaster may itself be unpredictable, but the need to pay for some level of disaster relief is not. Yet federal budgets rarely set aside adequate resources in anticipation of such disasters, and instead rely on emergency supplemental funding requests. The Commission plan explicitly sets aside funds for disaster relief and establishes stricter parameters for the use of these funds. The disaster fund budget authority (BA) will be limited to the rolling average of disaster spending in the most recent 10 years, excluding the highest and lowest year. Any unused budget authority will be rolled forward to increase the disaster fund BA available in the following year. Any spending above the disaster fund limit must be offset with reductions in spending or subject to a 60-vote point of order (and all other requirements established for regular emergency spending).

The Commission recommends codifying a strict definition of what qualifies as a disaster, and requiring Congress and the President to separately designate spending as an emergency and as necessary for the purposes of disaster response.

The National Response Framework Center at the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) has technical assistance resources for communities to learn about planning for disaster response and the role of different levels of government.

In terms of redundancy and questionable results of federal expenditures, the report, using the examples of multiple job training and math and science programs, calls for demonstration "to Congress or taxpayers [these programs] are actually accomplishing their intended purpose." Earmarks are expressly singled out as a practice that should be banned, but federal travel, printing, and hiring all receive attention.

Medical costs are discussed in detail, including a repeal or reform of the CLASS Act (Community Living Assistance Services and Supports). It is the Commission's opinion that the program as currently conceived is financially unsustainable. The Commission goes into detail about reforms of Medicare and Medicaid, including use of pilot programs and a long-term global budget for health care. Sections on Social Security, retirement and protecting those disadvantaged by disability and low income are well worth reading.

More Bang for the Buck

One method of addressing fiscal constraints, though certainly not a complete or a magic solution, is mobility management to achieve coordination. The premier digital issue of CT Magazine, Managing Mobility, a publication of the Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA), provides a mobility management primer as well as examples of mobility managers producing results for riders across the country. These examples demonstrate that mobility management can be employed both for transportation-challenged populations and for the public at large for livability purposes.

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