Transportation groups push to stave off cuts to public transit budget

Transportation advocates are wasting no time trying to convince lawmakers not to cut spending on public transit systems.

Though they have already secured stable funding through March of next year, public transportation groups are worried Congress could impose significant cuts in a long-term highway bill, which would include public transportation funding.

On Tuesday, rallies were staged across subway and bus systems around the country to alert passengers to the potential cuts, dubbed “Don’t X out public transit.”

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“Safe, reliable public transit is at risk,” American Public Transportation Association President William Millar said Tuesday on a conference call with reporters.

House Republicans have proposed a long-term bill that would maintain the same 80 percent-to-20 percent split between highway projects and public transportation funding, but would reduce overall spending to about $35 billion per year.

Transit advocates argue that would cut their portion of the budget pie by as much as a third, resulting in the loss of 620,000 transportation jobs in both the public and private sectors.

They also say such cuts would imperil daily commutes in cities large and small across the country at a time when passengers are already paying more for rides and communities are being forced to cut back services.

“We've already seen the highest fare increases and worst service cuts in 60 years," John Robert Smith, president and CEO of Reconnecting America and co-chairman of Transportation for America, said Tuesday.

The American Public Transportation Association and the Amalgamated Transit Union were also involved in Tuesday’s effort.

The groups might not have to worry about further cuts for the time being.

Congress last week approved legislation to extend highway and aviation funding through March of next year. That bill would expire just as lawmakers are focusing more and more on the 2012 campaign, leading some to think further short-term extensions are likely.

But that isn’t stopping public transportation groups from making their case now.

Smith said that the stagnant economy had already taken a broad hit on public transit funding at the local level. Budget cuts from Congress would only make matters worse, he said.

“Some may think we can't afford to invest in transit,” Smith said. “I think the question is, can we afford not to?”

The House proposal for a long-term bill would spend $235 billion over six years on highways and public transit. GOP lawmakers argue this figure is equal to the dollars raised by the federal gas tax, which is authorized by the highway bill.

The Senate has suggested a shorter, two-year, $109 billion bill, which increases current levels of funding for inflation.

Given the political climate, some think a long-term deal is not within reach, but Millar said political considerations could help advocates make their case.

“It’s fashionable in Washington to look at the political season as negative, but most congressmen and senators are going to want to go home and say, ‘I did something,’ ” he said in an interview with The Hill. “I don’t know many congressmen who are going to want to go home and say, ‘Guess what? I just cut the road budget by 30 percent.’ ”

While lawmakers face serious hurdles in winning a longer-term transportation bill, the issues aren’t quite as thorny as the labor dispute that bogged down an extension of the Federal Aviation Administration’s authorization.

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Mostly because of labor disputes, lawmakers have approved 22 short-term extensions of the FAA bill.

Asked if the highway bill might follow that pattern, Millar could only say he hoped not.

“I certainly hope we don’t get to 22 extensions,” he said. “To paraphrase an old TV show, I think eight is enough.”

Millar said he was optimistic because “the issues are well-known” involving the transportation bill, and Democratic leaders in the Senate and Republican leaders in the House were personally involved in the short-term extension.

“I saw it as a good sign that Majority Leader [Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] and Speaker [John] Boehner [R-Ohio] were able to get together and get a six-month extension,” he said. “I think that’s a very good sign.”