Transit Operating Aid Bill Doesn’t Fly With Major D.C. Transit Group
A burgeoning congressional push to let urban transit agencies tap federal funds for operating their systems is not sitting well with the transit industry's largest D.C. lobbying group, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).
Paul Dean, APTA's government relations director, told Streetsblog Capitol Hill yesterday that legislation permanently opening the cash-strapped highway trust fund to transit operating budgets is "really not consistent with our position."
APTA, which has advocated for the transit industry on the Hill for more than a century, wants to see the highway trust fund remain a dedicated source of transit capital aid -- purchasing new equipment or maintaining existing infrastructure, for example.
The group continues to support temporary federal operating aid during the recession, which has forced many local rail and bus systems into layoffs, service cuts, and fare hikes. Still, APTA's skepticism could be a major obstacle to passage of the legislation setting up permanent operating assistance from Washington, which is sponsored by Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH).
Dean noted that congressional budget scoring treats a transit-capital dollar, which has a long-term impact on the value of equipment, more favorably than a transit-operating dollar, which tends to be spent immediately on employee salaries. Congressional aides and lawmakers have told APTA that "they can give us a bigger, better bill if funds are used primarily for capital," he said.
Dean also highlighted the importance of ensuring dedicated financial support for transit from outside the federal sphere. "A lot of folks look at it as a zero-sum game," he added, "that if you add a federal subsidy, that's going to lead to state and local governments decreasing their contribution, and you're going to be back in the same place you were -- with less money available to meet your capital needs."
APTA's stance leaves the transit industry split on the operating-aid issue. A new lobbying coalition, the Alliance for Transit Operating Assistance, reflects a collaboration between the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA), where rural transit agencies have a strong voice.
CTAA spokesman Scott Bogren told Streetsblog Capitol Hill that his group continues to talk with APTA about finding common ground on operating aid, adding that concerns about transit capital budgets are shared across the board.
But Bogren described existing law, which allows cities with fewer than 200,000 residents to spend federal money on transit operating, as oftentimes incompatible with the daily reality of many growing urban areas.
"There's got to be balance," he said. "That 200,000 population is just a cliff that a system falls off." As the economy continues to flag, he said the CTAA is making sure that lawmakers hear from "enough of the mid-sized and smaller urban operators that are feeling some pain."
Conversely, Dean said that it is APTA's biggest members, the transit networks with "dedicated
operating budgets and considerable state-of-good-repair needs," that are most vocally opposed to permanent operating aid from the highway trust fund. That description tracks with a statement that New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) provided to Streetsblog New York during debate on last year's federal stimulus law.
In its response last year, the MTA said its top priority was seeking reliable funding from the state, not the federal government, and pointed out that its annual capital aid "from Washington has gone up from about $200 million to about $1.5 billion today."