Transit Industry Group Adds a Caveat to Its Stance on Operating Aid

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA), which has represented the transit industry in Washington for more than 120 years, has openly welcomed the year-long push for Congress to relax longstanding rules that prevent large urban agencies to spend federal grant money on their operating costs.

1124sci_diplo_carnahan.jpgRep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO) (Photo: AAAS)

APTA president William Millar wrote on the National Journal's transport blog in June that the economic recession has heightened the need for extra federal operating assistance to keep local rail and bus networks running. "The decline in operational revenue is creating budget crises for many public transit systems – leading to fare increases and service cuts," he said.

But there is a crucial caveat to APTA's support for federal help with transit operating costs: the group does not want to see it come from the highway trust fund (HTF), which is facing a dire fiscal future as lawmakers struggle to raise money for a new long-term transport bill.

J. Barry Barker, APTA's vice chair of government affairs, outlined the group's nuanced stance in an op-ed this week (emphasis mine):

And finally, 2009 also brought a shift in APTA legislative policy with the adoption of new policies and an amendment to APTA’s Surface Transportation Authorization Recommendations. In addition to funding traditional transit priorities, the recommendations now include a policy supporting temporary operating subsidies from non-Highway Trust Fund monies, a result of the worsening economic situation and its impact on state and local transit aid.

APTA's resistance to letting HTF money go towards operating costs as well as transit capital projects, such as new rail-car purchases, is borne out by its dwindling coffers. Federal estimates show the HTF transit account, though not as cash-poor as the highways account, starting to run at a deficit in 2012.

Still, APTA's support for tapping non-HTF sources of federal operating aid could become a major sticking point going forward. Rep. Russ Carnahan's (D-MO) legislation on the issue -- which picked up a Senate counterpart this week as well as the endorsement of influential Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) -- would allow urban transit agencies to use federal formula grants on operating. Those formula grants come from the HTF, a detail that could well run afoul of APTA.