Arizona to Other States: Take Our Transit Funding … Please

Streetsblog founder Aaron Naparstek passes along this tale of
legislative dysfunction from sunny Phoenix, Arizona. The narrator is
former Arizona state legislator Steve Farley, a former public artist
and community activist who recently brought home a $63 million TIGER grant to fund a new streetcar in Tucson.

It’s a good thing the feds provide funding opportunities outside the highway trust fund formula, or else it would be even harder to invest
in efficient, sustainable transportation in Arizona — a state that
goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid spending on transit. Farley’s
story explains why this is still the case:

Here’s a little narrative that says a lot about how this place works.

Senator
John Nelson (R-Glendale), in his role as the chair of the Senate
formerly-known-as-Transportation Committee, sponsored a bill (SB1137)
supported by the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) to allow
them to do a number of things, mostly technical, that they need to do
to provide a working transportation system for the state.

One
of those things was really important: A proposed provision to allow us
to set aside a small portion of the Vehicle License Tax (VLT) we
already collect in order to draw down federal matching funds for public
transit projects in Arizona, especially passenger rail projects in
Maricopa and Pima Counties and between Tucson and Phoenix.

Here’s
a bit of background. We pay 18 cents in federal taxes on each gallon of
gas we buy in Arizona. That money gets sent to Washington. We get it
back if we put up a certain percentage of matching funds from the
Arizona gas tax or some other source. Currently, 15 of those federal
cents go into a Highway Fund for road projects, and three cents go to a
Transit Fund for public transit projects. That works out to about $500
million per year for Arizona roads and $100 million per year for
Arizona transit.

The problem is, the Arizona constitution
says that our state gas taxes can only be spent for use on roads. That
means that we are able to draw down all of our $500 million for roads,
but none of our $100 million for transit, since we have no dedicated
source for the transit match. Consequently, our Arizona transit money
gets sent to other states that do have dedicated matches for their
transit projects. They get the jobs, they get the trains, and they get
the buses. We get the shaft.

Leveraging some money we already have to take our money back from other states is a really good idea. 

That
why the bill came out of the Senate with no opposition. Until it met
Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Gilbert), the same Transportation Chair who has
killed my ban on driving while texting for four years in a row. Mr.
Biggs does not believe that we should spend any transportation money on
transit that could be spent on highways.

So he refused
to hear this ADOT omnibus bill in his committee (a necessary step for
its passage) unless ADOT agreed to remove the transit matching fund
language, and unless ADOT agreed to publicly support this removal. I
tried to stop this amendment in committee using a series of
parliamentary maneuvers, but was unsuccessful at that level because Mr
Biggs said he would kill the bill if that provision remained.

But
I did not give up because this is a vitally important issue. Federal
transportation funding is increasingly moving toward rail and other
transit, and the federal transit funding could double or even triple in
upcoming years. Without this fund, we will lose out on being able to
bring all our money back, and become even more of a "donor state" than
we are today. So I went to work, lobbying House Republican members last
week and weekend.

Yesterday, SB1137 was debated during
Committee of the Whole (COW) on the house floor. I moved an amendment
that would restore the transit matching fund to the bill. I obtained
the support of the sponsor Senator Nelson, and several Republicans rose
up on the floor to support my amendment as well. When the voice vote
was taken, the Chair of the COW was in doubt, so we went to a head
count. My amendment to the committee amendment won 30-19, with nine
Republicans in support.

Mr Biggs then rose in opposition
to his own committee amendment because I had successfully amended it.
Again on a head count we won 30-19.  Mr Biggs told members that he
opposed my efforts because ADOT had not publicly opposed his efforts to
remove the transit fund.

Once we had won decisively with
bipartisan votes — twice — Mr Biggs decided to kill the whole bill
rather than allow that provision he opposed to move forward. During his
argument to finally kill the bill, he gave up the angle that he was
opposing the fund in order to support ADOT, but instead admitted that
he felt that the establishment of the transit fund was "stealing from
highways to build transit".

In the headcount on that
vote to retain the bill on the calendar, all the Republicans voted with
him because their caucus etiquette is to never oppose a caucus member
on a procedural matter. Thus did we lose, wiping out those two earlier
victories along the way.  The good news is that we gained a lot of
Republican allies on this totally bipartisan issue that will prove very
important in the future.

This morning, 1137 appeared on
a COW calendar again. I offered my amendment once more in order to
hammer home the case, but did not push to force a headcount after the
voice vote was called against me because I did not want Mr Biggs to
kill the underlying bill once again. We third-read the bill without the
transit fund in the afternoon and handed it back over to the Senate. At
least the issues were well argued. I believe we will prevail sooner or
later because time and history are on our side.

If
you’d like to keep up with this storyline and the inner workings of the
Arizona state legislature, you can sign up for the highly engrossing
"Farley Report" on Farley’s website.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Today’s Headlines

|
LaHood says he has yet to endorse Senate Dems’ $2B transit aid bill: "We need to look at how we pay for that" (WNYC) A separate, wide-ranging interview with LaHood, on everything from bike funding to fuel-efficiency rules (NPR) U.S. metro areas scratch the feds’ back, the feds scratch theirs? How one Arizona pitch could […]

The State of State Transit Funding

|
States increased their transit spending more than 5 percent between 2007 and 2011, reaching $13.9 billion annually, according to a recent report from the Association of American State Highway and Transportation Officials. But that increase was concentrated in just a handful of states. Almost all of the elevated transit spending — 92 percent — is attributable to five […]

Six Lies the GOP Is Telling About the House Transportation Bill

|
The transportation-plus-drilling bill that John Boehner and company are trying to ram through the House is an attack on transit riders, pedestrians, cyclists, city dwellers, and every American who can’t afford to drive everywhere. Under this bill, all the dedicated federal funding streams for transit, biking, and walking would disappear, leading to widespread service cuts […]

Yes, Transit Belongs in the Highway Trust Fund

|
As gas tax revenues wane, making it harder to finance a long-term transportation bill, ideas are beginning to circulate about how to save the (very poorly named) Highway Trust Fund. Some say the gas tax needs to rise. Others say fewer programs need to be financed out of the fund, which pays for all federal […]