Waiting for the bus in Chicago. The Obama Administration is getting behind a policy to help keep service running in cities struggling to cope with tight budgets and higher demand for transit. Photo: ifmuth/Flickr
Today’s Senate Banking Committee hearing held some good news for transit riders. Unintuitive though it may be, Banking has jurisdiction over public transportation in the Senate. While in the House, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee handles every aspect of the reauthorization, in the Senate the bill gets carved up. Environment and Public Works is taking the lead, with the specifics on transit left to Banking. Luckily, there are some transit champions on Banking: Jack Reed (D-RI), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) to name a few.
In an uncertain time for national transportation policy, there were several reassuring signs at today’s hearing, if you knew where to look. Here are five pieces of good news:
#1: Administration Pushes to Expand Transit Operating Assistance and State of Good Repair
Significantly, FTA Administrator Rogoff echoed Secretary Ray LaHood’s recent announcement of a push to expand operating assistance for transit agencies.
“There’s no point in using federal dollars to buy brand spanking new buses for transit systems if they cant afford to pay the drivers to put those buses into service,” Rogoff said. “We are proposing assistance that would be targeted and temporary, aimed at economically distressed, urbanized areas with 200,000 or more in population and phased out over three years.” (Smaller metros can already use federal funds for operating costs.)
Larry Hanley of the Amalgamated Transit Union mentioned that with population growth, more and more metro areas are hitting that 200,000 mark, disqualifying them (under normal circumstances) for federal operating aid, making initiatives like the one Rogoff mentioned all the more important.
The plan would be to offer up to 25 percent of an agency’s funding for operating costs the first year, narrowing that to 15 percent the second year and 10 percent the third and final year, with a sole focus on preserving service, especially while Americans are seeking out transit as an alternative to high gas prices.
Rogoff also said the agency has a new program to invest in the state of good repair of transit systems, citing the backlog of $50 billion in maintenance costs in just the country’s seven largest urban rail systems. He said it couldn’t just be a federal burden though – he wanted to see all levels of government step up to address the shortfall.
Ranking Republican Richard Shelby (R-AL) echoed the need for maintenance funds, but framed it as a mandate on local systems, asking that transit agencies that receive billions in federal funding for new capital projects be required to keep a state of good repair.