Public-transit advocates are stepping up their campaign for a long-term surface transportation bill and also want to fight off congressional proposals to sever their programs from the Highway Trust Fund, a key revenue source for rail and bus projects for more than three decades.
To highlight their messages, transit launched a Stand Up 4 Transportation day on April 9, with rallies and events at cities around the country, featuring top officials of local transit systems and their congressional allies.
Phil Washington, chair of the Denver-area Regional Transportation District (RTD), told reporters in a conference call that the transit-focused day and its events represent “our wake-up call to Congress.”
An American Public Transportation Association (APTA) study, released on April 9, said that if Congress fails to approve a new multi-year surface transportation bill, it “could have a devastating impact on public transportation services.”
The report also cites two House bills, introduced in March that would cut transit off from Highway Trust Fund revenue. Since 1982, the trust fund has had a mass transit account, which this year is expected to funnel about $8 billion to rail and bus projects.
One bill, which Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) introduced on March 19, has a provision to repeal the mass transit account. The other proposal, which Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) introduced on March 23, would phase out the transit account over five years.
The APTA study says bills like Massie’s and Sanford’s would cut localities’ transit capital spending by 43%.
The proposals have few sponsors so far, but APTA President and CEO Michael Melaniphy said that transit officials take them “very seriously.” He added, “These are horrible ideas. They are devastating to this nation.”
More broadly, transit officials are urging Congress to approve a multi-year surface transportation authorization. Washington of the RTD said that, in terms of spending, “This country has been on a 30-year infrastructure vacation.”
He added, “We need a long-term bill and we need it now.”
Washington, whom others say came up with the idea of Stand Up 4 Transportation day, said that transit project financing is a three-legged stool, with private-sector and local funding the first two legs. Federal funding is the third leg, and he said, “That leg is wobbly.”
Thomas Prendergast, New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority CEO, said, that having certainty for five or years of federal funding is important.
He said that MTA procurement regulations prevent the agency from letting contracts that don’t have funding certainty for the period of the project. That could affect multi-year projects with price tags the hundreds of millions of dollars or more.
If only shorter-term funding is available, Prendergast said, MTA may put projects with assured financing out for bids or split large projects into multiple smaller contracts. But that might increase the overall cost of the job, he said.
But construction and engineering industry officials have said that Congress almost certainly won’t pass a multi-year measure by May 31, when the current 10-month highway-transit extension lapses.
In February, the Obama administration did announce a $478-billion, six-year proposal that included $115 billion for public transportation. The bill’s 2016 transit allotment would be a 68% boost over the 2015 level.
The White House unveiled the detailed legislative language for that plan on March 30.
The Obama administration, some legislators and the American Road & Transportation Builders Association have floated various ideas for finding the tens of billions of additional dollars they’d like to see in a new bill. But no consensus is in sight.
Transit officials did not endorse a preferred source for the desired new revenue. Melaniphy said, “Certainly a user-based fee makes a lot of sense,” and noted that the gas tax hasn’t been increased in more than 20 years. But he added. “We’re certainly open to all options.
Polly Trottenberg, commissioner of the New York City Dept. of Transportation, said that, looking at transportation funding, transit and highways form an integrated system. “We don’t want to have a competition between roads and bridges and transit," Trottenberg said, "This shouldn’t be a ‘Hunger Games’.”