In October, Reps. Russ Carnahan (D-MO) and Steve LaTourette (R-OH) introduced a bill to allow transit agencies to use federal money to hire bus drivers and pay other operating expenses.
Last week, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), along with Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) introduced a Senate companion to the bill [PDF]. Like the House version, it conditions the assistance on the size of a metro area and the robustness of its transit service. Smaller metros would be able to use half their federal funds for operating costs, but that proportion drops to 45 percent for communities of 500,000 to a million people, and 40 percent for populations over a million.
The bill also pegs the relief to the severity of the economic crisis in any given community. If the unemployment rate dips or the price of gas holds steady, it’s bye-bye federal operating help. At least one of these conditions need to be met for the assistance to be available: The metro area’s unemployment rate has to be at or above 7 percent or the national average price of gas has to have increased by more than 10 percent over the same quarter the previous year.
Conditioning the transit assistance on high gas prices isn’t just about helping drivers temporarily shift modes to save money (only to shift back when gas prices are back down). High gas prices present an enormous cost burden to transit agencies.
“The fuel price trigger was really the original rationale for this emergency assistance,” said Sarah Kline of Reconnecting America. “This concept of crisis assistance arose first in the 2007-2008 timeframe, before the economy collapsed. The reason is because fuel prices went crazy, and when fuel goes up, transit agencies’ costs go up.”