Remember that apparent deal between Minnesota Senate Republicans and House DFLers to decriminalize nonpayment of fares on Metro Transit buses and trains?
After two years of trying — even after a leading opponent changed his mind on shifting fare violations from criminal sanctions to something akin to a parking ticket — the provision did not make it into the Minnesota Legislature’s omnibus transportation bill posted this week. That means nonpayment of fares will continue to be penalized with a $180 misdemeanor fine, a disconnect between punishment and violation that has led tickets to be infrequently issued — and rarely prosecuted. Also out of the final bill: allowing fare enforcement to be handled by a new corps of non-police transit personnel similar to Minneapolis’ Downtown Improvement District staff, an approach that has used in other cities to de-escalate confrontations.
House Transportation Committee Chair Frank Hornstein said the issue was discussed during negotiations, “but in the end it was one of the items left and the Senate didn’t agree.”
Article continues after advertisement
Both the civil citations and the transit ambassadors had been priorities of the Metropolitan Council and House DFLers. Republicans, however, expressed worry that it could make transit less safe at a time when crime was a concern of riders and law enforcement.
Still, a breakthrough seemed possible earlier this session when Senate Transportation Committee Chair Scott Newman, an influential Republican from Hutchinson, appeared to change his position. “Last year, when this came forward, I have to admit I was rather intransigent in my belief that we had to maintain the criminal penalties,” Newman said during a meeting of his committee March 1. “I have changed my mind on that.”
Newman said he would work with Sen. Scott Dibble of Minneapolis, the DFL’s transportation lead, to resolve final differences. Said Newman: “Just wish us luck.”
It wasn’t enough, even though similar language had already received strong bipartisan support in the House Transportation Committee. Newman was not available to comment Monday, but Hornstein said he was told that the bulk of the Senate GOP caucus wasn’t in agreement on the issue. “We’ll continue to fight for our position because it makes no sense that fare evasion on transit is a misdemeanor punishable by a $180 fine when someone pays $30 for a parking ticket,” said Hornstein, a Minneapolis DFLer.
Between the start of the 2019 session and this year, the GOP position had gone from “heck no” to “maybe yes.” The difference between then and now is that legislators from both parties worked over the summer and fall to learn about the issue — and seek some common responses to it. Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, had led the interim work on the issue with former Rep. Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee. Metro Transit also used the interim between sessions to implement changes in response to GOP complaints about crime and safety on the system.
The House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee has just marked up a five-year surface transportation reauthorization bill known as the INVEST in America Act. The behemoth package remains separate from the Biden administration’s efforts to pass an “infrastructure and jobs” plan and is a marked separation from the bipartisan highway bill recently passed through the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Even if it stands no real chance in the Senate as currently written, American consumers and small businesses should understand how problematic it is. This is particularly true when considering the need to help the economy recover. And nowhere is it perhaps clearer than in how the bill treats privately-owned freight railroads, which ironically need nothing out of the legislation.
As the American Consumer Institute has documented over the years, rail is critically important to the U.S. economy in ways that few realize. Thanks to smart, bipartisan regulatory reform that largely ridded the sector of rate regulation some 40 years ago, consumers today enjoy some $10 billion in annual savings. In short, less regulation worked for consumers.
Unlike the bevy of highway or transit advocates, railroads do not need federal handouts, while trucking relies on government-built highways and bridges.
Yet the House majority, apparently perturbed by the fact that railroads are solvent and have three times higher productivity than in the past, has gone out of its way to placate narrow lobbying interests. As the largest rail labor union recently proclaimed in celebrating the fact that Congress seeks to adopt their agenda in full: “The representatives also heard our voices regarding almost every one of the concerns we have about the current state of the railroad industry — crew size, train length, the utility of Positive Train Control and safety investigations — to name a few.”
A long list indeed.
While the world is moving to autonomous vehicles, perhaps most troubling is the continued effort to lock in the current operating practice of two individuals sitting inside a locomotive cab forever into the future. While it is tempting to assume that two-person crews are automatically safer than one-person crews, there’s absolutely no empirical evidence to support this.
In May 2019, the Federal Railroad Administration, the national safety regulator for railroads, definitively decided that regulation is not needed in this area. The FRA concluded that it would only chill investment and innovation, even if labor union leaders worried more about their leadership posts than their members who vocally pushed for a federal mandate. The previous administration said itself in 2016, that it “…cannot provide reliable or conclusive statistical data to suggest whether one-person crew operations are generally safer or less safe than multiple-person crew operations.”
Rather than enhance safety, mandating two-person crews could make rail operations more dangerous by crippling railroads’ ability to control costs and fund equipment upgrades. “A law or regulation that permanently requires a minimum crew size of two — especially where there is no evidence that one-person crews are less safe — can only stand in
A bipartisan group of 10 senators wants to use unspent COVID-19 relief money and new fees on electric vehicles as two of the major ways to pay for their eight-year, $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said on Sunday.
The group outlined their plan on Thursday but provided few specifics. It would include $579 billion in new spending but limit it to core infrastructure like roads, bridges and broadband while setting aside social programs and a corporate tax hike favored by President Joe Biden.
It is the latest in a series of attempts to bridge an impasse on the issue between the White House and Republicans. Biden cut off negotiations with Senate Republicans last week, but the new bipartisan group quickly emerged from the sidelines of that deal. A group of 58 House members evenly divided between the parties has put forward its own $1.25 trillion proposal.
Collins, a Republican, told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that the group has coalesced behind three funding methods: the unused stimulus money, a user fee for electric vehicles that do not pay gas tax and a financing model similar to one used for sewer and water infrastructure.
“There won’t be a gas tax increase and we won’t be undoing the 2017 tax reform bill,” Collins said, referencing her party’s sweeping tax-cut package.
The group may index the gas tax to inflation, however. The tax has not been raised since 1993 and the idea has been raised by Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, with some Democrats are open to it. But Biden has rejected the idea of raising taxes on Americans making less than $400,000 annually, which could also doom the electric vehicle fee.
It’s unclear if this proposal will gain any more traction than others that have failed so far, though it has moved beyond those proposals with five Democrats in the group including Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who are moderate swing voters in the 50-50 chamber.
The tricky part is paying for such a plan in a way that will satisfy everyone. Biden, who trimmed his initial proposal from a staggering $2.2 trillion to $1.7 trillion prefers the corporate tax hike over user fees such as gas tax hikes and tolls that business groups have long argued for. U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine’s 2nd District pointed to increased IRS enforcement as a potential way to fund infrastructure last week.
White House officials met on Thursday with Democratic senators working on a bipartisan agreement. “Some questions still need to be addressed, particularly around details of both policy and pay-fors,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said.
Cabinet members and senior White House staff will “work with the Senate group to answer those questions as we consult with other Members in both the House and the Senate,” Bates said.
Bloomberg News writer Erik Wasson contributed to this report.
As states have expanded orders and advice to people to remain at home in an effort to slow the spread of the virus, the numbers of people traveling and buying tickets for planes and trains has slowed to a trickle. On Tuesday, the Transportation Security Administration reported a nearly 90 percent decline in passenger numbers compared to last year. Transit agencies across the country have described similar drop-offs in demand.
The provisions in the congressional deal are designed to ensure that businesses don’t go bankrupt or public agencies default on their debts before passenger numbers recover.
Some details in the $2 trillion legislation were still being finalized, but in a presentation Wednesday afternoon, Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation, said he did not expect any changes to affect the final figures for transportation.
The bill is expected to pass the Senate on Wednesday before heading to the House.
About $50 billion would be available to airlines, which have suffered as governments have imposed restrictions on travel and passengers have canceled trips. Half of the money would come in the form of grants to ensure airline employees can continue to be paid, a provision that was a priority of labor unions and Democratic lawmakers.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said the money would protect hundreds of thousands of jobs.
“This is not a corporate bailout; it’s a rescue package for workers,” Nelson said in a statement.
In a letter to congressional leaders over the weekend, airline chief executives warned that if lawmakers didn’t make the grants available, “many of us will be forced to take draconian measures such as furloughs.”
Companies receiving the grants would be barred from furloughing workers until Sept. 30 and couldn’t issue dividends or buy back their stock until late 2021. They would also be required to maintain service levels into 2022.
Davis said those grants might be enough money to keep some airlines operating, but for those that need more help the legislation also includes $25 billion in loans.
The loans would be offered only to companies that the government believed would otherwise go out of business. Taxpayers would also take a stake in borrowers, allowing the public to benefit if the company’s stock price rose.
Air cargo companies could get as much as $8 billion in grants and loans, and another $3 billion in payroll grants would be available to airline support contractors.
Airports would see a further $10 billion in grants on the condition that they keep 90 percent of their staff employees until the end of the year.
The bill would provide $25 billion to transit agencies, the figure they had been seeking. The money could be used to pay to put personnel on administrative leave as agencies cut service, as well as to buy protective equipment and cover other costs.
Davis said the funding is structured in such a way that it is likely to especially benefit agencies in New York and Chicago,