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Transit groups push for more bus funding in highway bill

Transit groups push for more bus funding in highway bill
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A group of 81 public transportation unions and advocacy groups is pushing Congress to increase federal funding for bus companies in a transportation spending bill that is coming up for renewal at the end of the month. 

Lawmakers are facing a July 31 deadline for the expiration of current infrastructure funding, and they are considering both short- and long-term potential extensions to help pay for the nation's transportation projects.

The transit groups, who were organized by the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA), said Congress should reverse a 2012 decision to cut funding for buses in last two-year transportation bill that was approved by lawmakers. 

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"The splitting of the Section 5309 Capital program into three separate programs under MAP-21 reduced dedicated bus capital funding under that section from $980 million to $440 million," the groups wrote to the top lawmakers on the Senate Banking Committee. 

"Unfortunately the new Bus and Bus Facilities formula program under Section 5339 is less than half of previous Section 5309 levels, and modest increases elsewhere have failed to make up the difference," the groups continued.

The transportation measure that is expiring on July 31 is a second extension of the 2012 infrastructure bill, which was known as the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century act. 

The transit groups said the funding cuts in the 2012 transportation bill have had devastating affects on the bus industry. 

"Although it has not even been three years since the bill took effect, the results on the street have been devastating," the groups wrote. "Many buses now in service are well past their so-called useful life (12 years old), and with the cost of an average heavy duty large bus between $325,000 and $600,000, vehicle replacement has become a monumental task. 

"Real safety issues exist, as transit systems struggle to preserve their existing fleets through the use of old parts and creative maintenance departments," the letter continued. "While transit is still an incredibly safe industry, it is only a matter of time until serious accidents occur due to the aging of the fleets." 

The request for more bus funding comes at a time when lawmakers are struggling to come up with a way to pay for a new round of transportation funding. 

Congress has been grappling since 2005 with a transportation funding shortfall that is estimated to be about $16 billion per year, and lawmakers have not passed a transportation bill that lasts longer than two years during that span. 

The Department of Transportation has warned that its Highway Trust Fund will dip below a mandatory critical level of $4 billion at the end of the month. The agency has said crossing that threshold will necessitate a cutback on payments to state and local governments

The transit groups said bus cuts that were approved in 2012 have forced transit companies to cut back on service, which they said have negatively impacted transit workers. 

"The massive federal cuts in capital funding for buses are beginning to force systems to shift their precious state and local operating funds to the capital side, creating an influx of service cuts," the groups wrote. 

"Between 2008 and 2012, more than 85 percent of transit systems nationwide slashed service or raised fares -- some multiple times -- due to shortages in state and local funds," the groups continued. "Transit systems are being forced to make tough decisions on which routes to cut, and invariably, it’s the worker who relies on the late night bus to get home or the reverse commuter that pays the price…Without question, the lack of adequate dedicated bus capital means systems are using more operating dollars to keep aging fleets on the road."