Transit backers want more annual spending in highway bill

Transit advocates are pushing lawmakers to revive funding for buses and public transportation systems in the Northeast that has been cut in recent years. 

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) wants lawmakers to boost the federal government's annual spending for public transportation in the upcoming negotiations between the House and Senate on a new highway bill, even if it results in a shorter infrastructure funding package.

The transit group is pitching the plan as a solution to a fight over Northeast transit funding that erupted when House lawmakers approved an amendment to redirect money from "high-density" states to a national bus funding program.

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APTA President Michael Melaniphy said lawmakers could boost funding for both the high-density transit and national bus programs if they cut the proposed highway bill back from six years to five. 

"Restoring funding for the FTA Bus and Bus Facilities Program has been a core priority for the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) since the program was significantly cut under the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21)," Melaniphy wrote in letter to House and Senate negotiators who are working on the highway bill.  

"As the House and Senate reconcile differences in the two chamber’s surface transportation program reauthorization proposals, APTA, while still opposed to the Herrera Beutler Amendment, would like to offer an alternative funding proposal," he continued. 

"APTA’s alternative proposal would not only fully restore funding for the Bus and Bus Facilities Program to pre-MAP-21 levels, whereas Herrera Beutler would not, but it would also preserve the Association’s foundational position of providing for program growth without imposing major funding reductions in investment for any one region, mode, or group of transit providers," he concluded.  

Lawmakers are conferencing over a multiyear highway funding package after the House passed a six-year, $325 billion bill last week that contains three years' worth of road and transit funding.

The Senate passed a bill that contains three years' worth of transportation funding in July, and lawmakers are expected to try to meld the measures quickly to beat a Nov. 20 deadline for renewing federal infrastructure spending.

The issue of transit funding became contentious when Rep. Jaime Herrera BeutlerJaime Herrera BeutlerFunding the fight against Zika Lawmaker's husband donates kidney to 'miracle' daughter Capitol Hill’s forest champions helped secure win for wood MORE (R-Wash.) offered an amendment to eliminate the federal government's High Density States transit program.

The program, established in a 2005 highway funding bill, sets asides money for Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Washington, D.C., which are home to heavily used but aging transit systems.

Supporters of the amendment from areas of the country that are excluded from the high-density transit program said the move to make the public transportation funding available to all states is "an issue of fairness."

"The idea that seven states have available to them more money than all 50 states combined isn’t fair to all of the communities in my state, or yours, or in the other 43 states," Herrera Beutler said during debate on her amendment, which had support from several Democrats outside of the Northeast.

"My amendment would simply move the funding from the seven-state set-aside into the Competitive Bus Grant program and allow all states to compete for these much-needed resources," she continued.

Lawmakers who represent parts of the Northeast have vowed to fight to restore the high-density transit funding in the upcoming highway bill talks. 

“This proposed cut in funding would deal a devastating blow to transit agencies, particularly at a time when New York’s infrastructure is crumbling and in need of additional funding," Sen. Chuck SchumerCharles SchumerOvernight Healthcare: House, Senate on collision course over Zika funding Ryan goes all-in on Puerto Rico Cruz's dad: Trump 'would be worse than Hillary Clinton' MORE (D-N.Y.) said in a statement after Herrerra Beutler's amendment was approved. 

"That is why I am going to do everything in my power to reverse these cuts and restore the program, which has been a lifeline for New York in years past and should continue to be for years to come,” Schumer continued. 

APTA's Melaniphy argued Tuesday the northeast transit funding cuts would not be necessary if Congress opts to pass a five-year highway bill instead of stretching the spending over six years. 

Melaniphy said a condensed highway bill would "provide meaningful infrastructure investment to bring our systems into a state-of-good-repair" and allow lawmakers to "reallocate the sixth-year of transit funding proportionally between the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) categorical programs as proposed in the DRIVE Act.

"APTA strongly urges the Conference Committee to adopt this proposal to restore the Bus and Bus Facilities Program and recede to the Senate’s position that retains the [high density transit funding]," he wrote. 

"This nation needs a surface transportation bill that maintains an appropriate level of funding to not only meet current demands, but ensure its citizens have access to economic opportunity and prosperity," Melaniphy continued.