Advocates seek to protect transit subsidies

Advocates seek to protect transit subsidies
© Curtis Compton

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) is moving to protect a 20 percent subsidy for U.S. transit projects that is included in the federal highway bill amid criticism from some congressional Republicans.

Several GOP lawmakers suggested during a hearing on U.S. infrastructure funding this week that eliminating the provision that requires 20 percent of all gas tax revenue that is collected to be set aside for transit projects would be a way to boost the nation's spending on roads and bridges.

APTA President Michael Melaniphy slammed the idea after the hearing was completed.

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"Public transportation is...an essential part of the nation's integrated, interdependent surface transportation system," Melaniphy said in a statement.

"To suggest that Congress should eliminate funding from the Highway Trust Fund, as some members of Congress did [this week], is shortsighted," he continued. "Such an action would be catastrophic for public transportation systems nationwide and hurt the millions of Americans who use it every day in growing numbers."

The transit subsidy was established during the Reagan administration in 1983. The rule requires that 20 percent of all revenue that is collected from the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax be diverted to a mass transit account within the Department of Transportation's Highway Trust Fund.

The remaining 80 percent of the gas tax money that is collected is used to pay for road and bridge projects.

Lawmakers are struggling to come up with a way to pay for a new transportation bill this year. The gas tax has not been increased since 1993, and it has struggled to keep pace with increased construction costs as cars have been more fuel efficient.

The federal government normally spends about $50 billion per year on infrastructure projects, but the gas tax only brings in about $34 billion annually typically. Lawmakers have turned to other areas of the federal budget in recent years to close to close the gap.

Several members of the House Transportation Committee who represent rural areas pressed Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony Renard FoxxWeek ahead in tech: Lawmakers turn focus to self-driving cars Six contenders to be Uber's new CEO Obama’s Transportation chief given Super Bowl tickets by Hollywood studio exec MORE during Wednesday's hearing on whether the transit subsidy could be cut to save money for road projects.

"Whenever I look at the mandatory split of 20 percent for transit and sometimes see buses passing by with two folks on them, it doesn't always seem to be kind of I guess best bang for the buck being invested in some cases," Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) said. 

Foxx said the transit set aside is critical to the overall maintenance of the nation's transportation system.

"One of the ways to relieve the congestion is to get the individual auto user off the road and you do that partly by having good transit facilities," he said. "So from a macro standpoint, I think the transit investment actually help our highway system move more people and more freight traffic."

Foxx added that most of the money in the Obama administration's $478 billion infrastructure funding proposal was for road projects, even as he argued that the transit funding was important.

"The bill we are discussing and that we will put out to you shortly is a $478 billion bill," he said. "Now, there is a 29 percent increase in the transit allocation, but the highway allocation is increased over a much larger baseline. So out of $478 billion bill, there is $317 billion of it that's dedicated to highways."

Melaniphy said that cutting the transit subsidy should not even be debated by Congress this year.

"There has been bipartisan support for federal investment in public transportation through the federal gas tax since 1983 when, under President Reagan, fuels tax revenues were dedicated to public transportation through the Mass Transit Account of the surface transportation legislation," he said. 

"It is important to note that from 1983 on, dedicated revenue for public transit has never been diverted from highway dollars in the Highway Trust Fund," Melaniphy continued. "Now is the time to increase investment in public transportation, not reduce it. The quality of our transportation system and the competitiveness of our country depends on it."

Foxx offered a similar analysis of the public transportation set-aside during Wednesday's hearing.

"I think the premise is that the transit investments are critical, and if you go up to for instance, Chicago and New York City, where they've got the subway systems that are aging and old and falling apart, if that system falls apart, our economy is going to fall apart," he said. "And so I think that we have critical investments need to be made in both areas quite frankly."

The current transportation funding measure, which included about $11 billion worth of infrastructure projects, is scheduled to expire in May.