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Here’s how senators can turn their support for transit into real policy

27 Feb 2020 | Posted by | 0 Comments | , ,

At a Congressional hearing earlier this week, senators on both sides of the aisle expressed support for funding public transportation. As they begin to prepare legislation, we have six ideas on how to guarantee that transit is a priority. 

American Public Transportation Association president Paul Skoutelas testifying before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs earlier this week. Photo credit: Banking Committee

Crafting transportation policy is a task split between four different Senate committees, and the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs is responsible for drafting the transit piece. As the current law of the land—the FAST Act—expires this September, the Banking Committee held a hearing earlier this week on “stakeholder perspectives” about public transportation policy.

It went pretty well: Both Democratic and Republican Senators on the Banking Committee spoke of their support for public transportation and their desire to improve it. We’re happy to hear it. But the Banking Committee must ensure that the final transportation bill makes transit a priority, not just a small part of a highway-centric bill. Simply maintaining the status quo is unacceptable. 

We have six policy ideas for both the House and Senate to guarantee that transit is a priority in the upcoming surface transportation reauthorization. Congress, take note:

1. Provide adequate resources for transit maintenance

Federal law allocates 20 percent of the Highway Trust Fund to public transit. Unlike in the highway program (which allows states to neglect their repair needs), these funds are primarily spent on maintenance. Unfortunately, this still underfunds our transit maintenance needs. In order to truly prioritize maintenance of public transit systems the federal government must provide the necessary resources.

Congress should substantially increase the formula public transit maintenance funds to a level that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) estimates will reduce the maintenance backlog in half. As of the most recent conditions and performance report, the FTA estimated that the transit maintenance backlog was approximately $90 billion. 

2. Require roadway designs which provide safe and convenient access to transit

Public transit is most useful when streets are designed to provide people with safe and convenient access. Today, most roads—not just highways—are designed to move personal vehicles at the highest speeds possible, and are not designed for people walking, biking, or taking transit. Our dangerous streetscapes are a driving force behind the disturbing increase in pedestrian fatalities—occurring at the same time that the number of fatalities of people inside cars is going down. 

3. Develop a national assessment of access to jobs and services by all modes, including transit, and set national goals for improvement.

Instead of measuring success of the transportation system by looking primarily at the limited and blunt metric of congestion (which fails to measure people opting out of congestion via transit or walking and biking), we should measure access to jobs and services by all modes, including transit. This will allow an apples-to-apples comparison of the benefits of all projects and will place transit investments on equal footing with road investments. The first step toward adoption of this approach is to establish a national baseline so that we can set goals for improvement.

4. Provide operating support for public transit

While the federal government will help local governments and MPOs build new public transit, it provides limited support in rural communities and no support in urban areas to operate their systems. This is unlike some other modes of transportation where the federal government provides significant operating support. High quality operations including safe, frequent, reliable service are integral to a successful public transit.

5. Fund transit and roads equally

The federal funding distribution disincentivizes investment in transit in two ways. The first is that while funding for new roads is guaranteed to states thanks to over $40 billion annually in highway formulas (this will be over $50 billion if the Senate EPW Committee’s bill passes), transit is given just $2 billion in discretionary funds (that are not guaranteed) to build new or expand existing transit.

Second, the federal government will fund up to 80 percent of a road project (even 90 percent in limited cases), and only up to 50 percent of a transit project (though matches of less than 40 percent have been more common in recent years). This doesn’t just disincentivize investment in public transit: it creates the false perception that public transit is too expensive when compared to roads.  

6. Reform the transit Capital Investment Grant Program with more funding and new deadlines for USDOT

The Capital Investment Grant (CIG) program supports local communities that have chosen to expand or build new public transit systems. It is the primary program that transit project sponsors use to build or expand public transit. 

Funding for this program is discretionary and limited to $2.6 billion, which has failed to keep pace with increased construction costs and needs to address operational bottlenecks. Further, in recent years, the FTA has failed to communicate with Congress, project sponsors, and the public as to the status of the program and projects seeking funding, undermining the efficient operation of this program and placing a greater burden on local communities. 

There is a lot the FTA can do to improve CIG, but our big ask is this: Congress should allow the FTA to fund the same share of a new transit project as is allowed for new roadways (under current law that is 80 project), and require that the FTA provides annual assessments of projects expected to advance to the next phase of CIG project pipeline. 

Why this matters

Public transportation is key to our local, regional, and national economies and is essential to economic opportunity. But national transportation policy provides too little funding for transit, only covers half or less of the final project cost, and fails to properly integrate our transit and road networks. The federal government puts a thumb on the scale, making it near impossible for towns and cities to choose a transit solution to a transportation challenge.

It’s time for this to change. The Banking Committee can use the upcoming surface transportation reauthorization to make public transportation a national priority. The Committee can stand up for transit by working with their colleagues on EPW and in leadership to ensure our transportation network supports transit, and by approving a robust transit title that provides urban and rural transit agencies the resources they need to provide safe, efficient, and reliable service. 

We appreciate how hard Banking has fought to save transit in the Highway Trust Fund. Those fights were important. But now is the time to do more.