Union looks to save public transit fund for Northeast cities

Union looks to save public transit fund for Northeast cities
© Greg Nash

A union for transit workers is pushing lawmakers to revive funding for public transportation systems in the Northeast that was cut by the House.

The Amalgamated Transit Union 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 union 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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ATU International President Larry Hanley said lawmakers could boost funding for both the high-density transit and national bus programs if they opt to pass a shorter overall highway funding bill instead of the six-year proposals that have been discussed.

"The best way to achieve both of these goals is to shorten the length of the bill, preferably to four years, thereby substantially increasing annual funding increases for the entire transit program," he wrote in a letter to House and Senate negotiators.

"If a six-year bill is passed, transit riders in some parts of the country are going to be riding in unsafe buses or suffering through another round of fare increases and service cuts," Hanley continued.

"This is a false choice. We urge you to take advantage of the last-minute funding in the House bill and spread it out over a shorter duration so that Americans' transit needs can be met, no matter where they live."

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 Lynn Herrera BeutlerGOP lawmakers offer new election security measure GOP group calls out five House Republicans to speak up on Ukraine Dems push to revive Congress' tech office MORE (R-Wash.) offered an amendment to eliminate the federal government's High Density States 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 Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a recent statement. "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.”

The ATU's Hanley echoed that sentiment on Thursday, saying that "the seven Northeast states that have received 'high density' money since 2005 likely transport the majority of transit riders in America on a daily basis — New York alone has one-third."

"The FTA estimates that the nation's transit systems collectively have a state of good repair backlog that exceeds $78 billion, and the Northeast rail/bus systems, some of the oldest in the country, account for a significant amount of that total, he wrote.

Hanley said the current amount of funding for bus service in the rest of the country is also inadequate, however.

"[M]any buses now in service are well past their so-called useful life, and vehicle replacement has become a monumental task, creating real safety issues."

Hanley said aiming for a shorter highway bill could address both funding problems, if the fund for high-density states was eliminated.

"[A]nother way to address the issue is to change the nationwide competitive grant program in the House amendment to a formula program so that the Northeast States can get back some of their lost revenue in a nationwide formula provision," he wrote.

"Then, by shortening the bill length, the high density states could be made whole by using a smaller amount of the total."

-This story was updated with new information at 9:59 p.m.