After 30 Years of Federal Support for Transit, Battle Lines are Redrawn

Add Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff to the list of people saying that it’s premature to declare victory over the House’s attempts to cast transit into the abyss. Rogoff knows a thing or two about transportation bills: He was an aide on the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee for 20 years, during which time the federal government passed three long-term transportation laws.

FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff says 30 years of not having to defend federal funding has led to complacency. Photo: ##http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2011/04/26/central-corridor-funding/##Minnesota Public Radio##

Until they show us something different, said Rogoff, the same old House bill — the one that cuts off all dedicated revenue streams for transit programs — is still the one before us. And since the House has yet to bring forward any concrete alternatives, it presents “an incredibly fluid and dangerous situation, especially since our highway trust fund programs are scheduled to expire in three weeks.”

The House bill “deliberately puts public transportation on a starvation diet, forcing it to survive on the most controversial of funding proposals,” like oil drilling, according to Rogoff. “And I’m talking about what the House bill does, not what the House bill did.”

“We spend a great deal of time talking to each other, but we’re in a fundamental fight now for our own survival,” Rogoff said. “I don’t think we’ve won the fight on the trust fund. We haven’t won anything. The only thing that’s happened is that the expiration of our program has grown weeks closer.”

Support for mass transit has been enshrined in federal law since Ronald Reagan signed the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982, which raised the federal gas tax for the first time since 1959 and directed a portion of the proceeds to fund transit. Since then, Rogoff surmises, the transit industry has gotten complacent.

“We’ve never had to have the discussion about why we are there in the name of a balanced transportation system,” Rogoff said. “I’d be willing to bet that of the 535 members of House and Senate, less than a dozen were in office when Reagan signed transit into the trust fund. That gives us 520-plus people to educate.” (The real number is well over a dozen, in fact closer to 40, but it doesn’t change his point.)

The result is a Congress that never truly internalized the rationale for supporting transit, and therefore sees it as as a superfluous nice-to-have rather than a hard-fought and well-deserved component of federal policy. “We need to talk to each and every one of them. We need to stop just speaking to our friends.”

His remarks called to mind a moment in the House Ways and Means hearing where the changes to transit funding were first proposed. An older Congressman turned towards freshman Republican Aaron Schock, the chamber’s youngest member at 31, and commented that he wasn’t sure every member of the committee was even born when transit started receiving dedicated federal funds — as though the rationale behind it had somehow expired with age.

Indeed, Rogoff singled out young people as another population segment who deserve to be presented with the case for transit. “It goes back to not having had to make the case for 30 years,” Rogoff said. “All they know is that the bus comes, they don’t know who’s paying for it.”

The same could be said of many members of Congress — Rogoff pointed out that the rural constituencies whose representatives are leading the charge against transit are the same ones who depend the most on federal funding to keep their services afloat.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’ve got an idea.  Repeal the federal gas tax, since Americans are mad about gas prices, and eliminate all federal transportation spending.

    Or perhaps raise the income tax to fund transportation spending, and distribute the money in proportion to federal income tax receipts by state.  In states with significant transit ridership, the state would have to raise the gas tax by at least half the amount of the former federal tax to qualify for federal money.  In states without significant transit ridership, they would be required to suspend their state gas taxes for three years in order to qualify for federal money.

  • brian

    How about axing all of the Federal Highway Funding and let “the market” determine how/when/where roads are built and see how long it takes for people to understand the rationale for providing transit funding.  If that doesn’t work, cut all airport and seaport funding.

  • Larry T.

    How about forcing states to pay for their interstates on the basis of the ratio of their population to their highway miles. Watch Wyoming, Nevada, Montana etc. howl over that one!

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