Advocates push feds to spend more on transit

Advocates push feds to spend more on transit
© Curtis Compton

Public transportation advocates are asking Congress to spend an extra $12 billion per year on the nation’s transit systems as lawmakers struggle to come up with a way to pay for a new round of infrastructure funding. 

The federal government typically reserves 20 percent of its surface transportation spending for transit projects, but some Republicans have argued that the funding should be cut, as lawmakers continie to scrounge for a solution to an infrastructure funding shortfall that is estimated at $16 billion per year. 

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) told lawmakers in the Senate on Thursday that instead of considering cutting transit spending, the whole infrastructure funding pot should be increased so transit systems can get a bigger piece of the pie.  

“We know transit ridership is growing, we know our population is expected to grow significantly, and we believe that the demand for public transportation service in our communities will continue to grow,” APTA President Michael Melaniphy said in testimony submitted to the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday. 

“Our failure as a nation to adequately invest in this essential element of surface transportation system will only cost the nation more in the long run,” Melaniphy continued. “Conversely, investment in public transportation will help support a healthy, growing economy, facilitating the efficient movement of goods and people, and stimulating economic development in communities served by vibrant public transportation systems.” 

The formula that requires the federal government to reserve 20 percent of its transportation spending for public transit projects was put in place during the Reagan administration in the 1980s.

Republicans have pushed in recent years to tinker with the formula as federal transportation funding has dried up, but Melaniphy told the Senate panel on Thursday that they should focus more on the other end of the equation. 

“As our impending revenue shortfall makes clear, funding uncertainty delays capital investment and drives up project costs,” he said. “To ensure the reliable, long-term funding best suited to infrastructure investment, APTA urges Congress to enact a six-year, $100 billion authorization for the federal transit program that includes robust funding to grow the program from $10.7 billion in the current year to $22.2 billion in 2021. Revenues into the Highway Trust Fund must increase to support this much needed growth.” 

The federal government’s current transportation funding measure is scheduled to expire on May 31. 

Lawmakers in both parties have expressed a desire to prevent an interruption in funding, but consensus on how to pay for an extension of the infrastructure funding has been elusive

The typical source of transportation funding has been revenue that is collected from the 18.4-cents-per-gallon gas tax. The gas tax brings in about $34 billion per year, but the federal government typically spends approximately $50 billion on transportation projects. 

Lawmakers have turned to other areas of the federal budget in recent years to close the shortfall, but transportation advocates have said the patches are weakening the nation’s infrastructure because they make it more difficult for states to plan long-term construction projects. 

The Department of Transportation has said, meanwhile, that it will have to start cutting off payments to states in July if Congress does not pass a transportation funding fix because its Highway Trust Fund will run out of money.

The chairman of the Senate Banking Committee expressed reservations about the request to increase funding for transit agencies on Thursday, though he said he would also prefer a long-term fix for the transportation funding shortfall. 

“A long-term reauthorization bill will provide certainty and stability to communities and their citizens as well as business and industry,” Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Chances for disaster aid deal slip amid immigration fight Immigration fight imperils deal on disaster aid package MORE (R-Ala.) said. “However, any reauthorization proposal Congress considers must be fiscally responsible and balance spending needs with long-term sustainability, flexibility, and innovation.” 

Shelby said in a hearing about transportation funding earlier this week that transit systems may have to turn to private companies to finance their large projects. 

"Federal policies should encourage private sector investment in transportation and transit infrastructure in order to better leverage federal investments and increase economic growth," he said during a hearing on Tuesday that featured testimony from officials with the Federal Transit Administration.   

Business and labor groups told the panel Thursday that they supported the idea of increasing the federal government’s transit funding — a moment of rare agreement. 

“Businesses place a high value on mobility — of their employees, customers and supply chains — and are solution orientations,” Chamber of Commerce Transportation and Infrastructure Executive Director Janet Kavinoky said in testimony submitted to ahead of Thursday’s hearing. 

“This country is long past the time when highways alone can serve the needs of business,” Kavinoky continued. “To create a 21st century infrastructure to support a 21st century requires a partnership between all levels of government and the private sector, multiple modes of transportation and flexibility for those closest to the problem to tailor solutions to their particular needs.” 

Transport Workers Union of America President Harry Lombardo added that Congress should boost transit funding to make up for years of underinvestment. 

"We have to both maintain our systems and modernize them,” he said. 

Lombardo also told the panel that public-private partnerships are not a clear-cut solution to the federal government's transportation funding problem.  

"We need to stop thinking that Public Private Partnerships are a panacea for transit," he said. "In fact, in many cases, P3’s threaten the public interest by undermining commitments to timely and safe transit service, and to workers, wages and retirement security." 

—This story was updated at 1:32 p.m.