Eight Senate Dems Offer $2B Plan for Emergency Transit Operating Aid

Transit agencies forced to raise fares or cut service to close budget gaps would be eligible for $2 billion in emergency operating funds under legislation unveiled today by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) and seven other Democratic senators, including two members of the party's leadership.

harry_reid_christopher_dodd_max_baucus_charles_schumer_richard_durbin_2009_8_4_16_40_23.jpgSens. Chris Dodd (D-CT), left, Charles Schumer (D-NY), right, and Dick Durbin (D-IL), second from right, with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). (Photo: AP)

The transit operating bill would authorize $2 billion in federal grants aimed at helping local transit agencies reverse already-imposed service cuts, fare increases, or worker layoffs -- provided that those changes were forced by a shortfall in state or local transport budgets that took effect after January 1, 2009. Any agency planning future service cuts or fare hikes could use their grant money to stave off those moves until September 2011.

"While families continue to struggle to make ends meet, the last thing we should do is make it harder and more expensive for people to get to work," Dodd said in a statement. "This bill will prevent disruptive service cuts and help put money back in the pockets of families when they need it most."

Those transit agencies not pursuing service cuts, fare hikes, or layoffs would be allowed to use the extra federal money for maintenance or repair of existing infrastructure. The transit operating funds would be distributed according to existing formulas, but the authorizing nature of the bill means that the money will also need to be appropriated in a separate piece of legislation.

Notably, the bill's authorization remains in effect until September 2011, giving lawmakers more than a year to find suitable appropriations vehicles to which the operating aid bill can be attached.

In addition, the legislation's short-term nature meets the conditions set by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), which had endorsed extra operating aid with the proviso that it not become a permanent fixture of the federal transit program.

Transportation for America (T4A), an infrastructure policy reform group that counts APTA as a member, hailed the bill's release.

“With demand for public transportation service at its highest level in over 50 years, Congress must act to protect Americans who rely on transit from service cuts and fare hikes that threaten their ability to reach jobs and daily necessities," T4A director James Corless said in a statement. "This act will help to preserve an economically essential service with a one-time, emergency infusion that will help to save jobs and access to jobs."