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Posts from the "Transit Operating Costs" Category

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Lawmakers Push to Fund Transit Service During Economic Emergencies

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.

Without federal help, more buses could go out of service -- and the ones still circulating could charge more. Photo: Gothamist

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.”

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Senate Banking Committee to Vote on Transit Section of Transpo Bill Friday

If the Banking Committee is going to make any progress on the transit section of the Senate transportation bill, it’s going to have to happen before this weekend, when Congress leaves for the holiday recess and doesn’t come back till late January. Indeed, on Friday, the very last day of the session, Banking is planning to vote on its part of the bill.

Banking Committee Chair Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Ranking Member Richard Shelby (R-AL). Photo: LAT

The committee website is still silent on the matter, but Politico reported this morning that the news came straight from the horse’s mouth — Chair Tim Johnson (D-SD).

So what can we expect from this bill? Definitely not a change in the highway/transit split, insiders say. The 80/20 split is a tradition, they say, not a matter of law, but it’s not going anywhere. When you actually crunch the numbers, transit ends up getting a bit less than its 20 percent of the Highway Trust Fund receipts, but that’s still the number that’s used and you can expect it to stay steady in this bill.

Streetsblog has also wondered whether support for transit operating expenses might make it into this bill, and from what we hear, there might be a compromise. Aides say top committee Republican Richard Shelby is amenable to the argument that some operating assistance — as opposed to capital expenditures, which is what is normally funded with federal dollars — might be appropriate during a time of economic downturns, in order to avoid an abrupt dropoff in service or fare increases. But the support would be a temporary crisis measure, not ongoing policy.

As for what programs might get “consolidated” out of existence in the name of streamlining the federal program — we’ll have to wait and see.

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Carnahan and LaTourette Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Bolster Transit Service

It’s a sign of the recession, but also symptomatic of a longstanding restriction on federal transit funding. In Lorain, Ohio and Albany, New York and other cities across the country, rows of brand new buses, paid for with stimulus money, have been laid up in garages.

Many transit agencies across the country have new buses they can't afford to operate because of restrictions in federal funding for local transit agencies. Photo: Next Stop STL

Despite falling revenues, these recession-battered transit agencies might be able to return some of those buses to service if they had more flexibility to decide how they spend federal funds.

For years, transit advocates have been lobbying for greater local control over transit funding that flows from Washington. And it looks like now — while demand for transit is high but local budgets are tight — momentum is building to give local agencies the flexibility they need.

Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO), working with Ohio Republican Steve LaTourette, has introduced a bill that would help put more buses on the streets. While federal funds are often restricted to capital projects, Carnahan’s bill would allow transit agencies, during times of crisis, to use some of that money for operating expenses, like paying bus drivers.

The bill would allow local agencies to expand service, or at least minimize cuts, at a time when more and more people are coming to depend on transit. And it would not increase federal expenditures in the process.

“Folks across the country rely on public transit to get to work and businesses rely on those services to get their employees to them,” said Carnahan. “But we’re forcing transit agencies to lay off workers even when funds are available.”

Similar bills have been introduced since the bottom dropped out of the economy in 2008, but this time around the proposal appears to have bipartisan support. The Local Flexibility for Transit Assistance Act has 89 sponsors from both political parties, and Carnahan expects more to join shortly. After all, the bill decentralizes decision-making and doesn’t cost anything – popular themes among Republicans.

“We have some good, like-minded people on both sides of the aisle working on this issue,” Carnahan said. “It’s only common sense to allow local officials to decide how transit dollars will best be spent in their areas.”

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Absent a Transportation Bill, DOT Can Innovate All On Its Own

As Deron Lovaas said this morning on NRDC’s Switchboard blog, “If recent events are any indicator, it might take Congress a while to agree on a policy that will put our underfunded, inefficient, oil-dependent transportation program on the right track.”

It's working in San Francisco. Now USDOT can help expand dynamic pricing to other cities around the country. Image: SFMTA.

Well now, that’s an understatement.

Between the uncertainty of the supercommittee and the bicameral bickering over the size and length of a bill, the only thing we can be sure of is that we’re heading toward yet another extension of SAFETEA-LU when it expires at the end of next month – if the two parties can agree to even that. Negotiations broke down over a whole lot less recently, when Congress let the FAA shut down over a measly couple million bucks.

But even if it’s a while before we see legislation passed that enacts new policies, there’s a lot the USDOT can do with existing authority to make smarter transportation investments that reduce congestion and carbon emissions. NRDC has documented them in a new report, “Federal Actions to Reduce Energy Use in Transportation” [PDF].

  • Dynamic pricing. Fifteen states are participating in the DOTs Value Pilot Pricing Program, which allows states more flexibility in levying tolls and other pricing measures. San Francisco’s innovative new parking pricing system is a fruit of this program. Other variable pricing measures, like congestion pricing, could also help reduce fuel use and pollution, says Lovaas.
  • Realism. USDOT should enforce the fiscal constraints of regional long-range transportation plans, being upfront about realistic costs. Lovaas says this will address a “pet peeve” of his and force states to reconsider “costly highway projects that have been on the books forever.”
  • Transit benefits. Without further authority, USDOT could expand and promote the transit benefit program, which allows companies to give employees $240 per month in tax-free transit and vanpool benefits. Lovaas says the program is currently run by the IRS without any DOT involvement, and is vastly undersubscribed.

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Good News From the Senate: Transit Operating Assistance and Much More

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.

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Why Transit Agencies Expand Capacity While They Cut Service

The past couple of years have been bittersweet for American transit riders. While the Obama administration’s TIGER grant program and livability initiatives have spurred investments in new streetcar and bus projects, service cuts and fare hikes have been the order of the day in cities large and small, as transit agencies cope with shrinking revenues brought on by the recession. It can be frustrating for transit users to witness the construction of expensive new facilities while they’re paying more for less service.

Protesting TriMet service cuts last month. ##http://blogs.wweek.com/news/2010/09/01/protesters-rally-in-response-to-trimet-fare-increase/##Willamette Week##

Protesting TriMet service cuts last month. Willamette Week

At Rail~volution, transit agencies gave their side of the story, letting attendees get inside their heads as they engage in the sometimes-inscrutable tug-of-war between spending on capital projects (maintenance and expansion) and operations (service).

Some transit officials think that in order to keep service from slipping any further or fares from going any higher, they need to maintain their customer base – and that the prospect of new facilities might keep them there.

But others see the reverse as being true. “If people like the service they have,” said former Massachusetts Transportation Secretary James Aloisi, Jr., “even if it’s inferior to what you know it could be, they’ll support efforts to expand it.” So maintaining a high level of service can also build political support for capital projects.

The Federal Firewall That Shuts Out Transit Operations

Federal transit funding is directed almost exclusively toward capital expenses (including maintenance) and is rarely available for operating costs. In order to take advantage of federal funds, transit agencies have to come up with new capital projects. They can’t just ask for help to hire bus drivers.

And judging by the comments at Rail~volution, that’s just the way the transit agencies like it.

Transit workers and advocates around the country have organized to gain access to federal funds for operations, and they’ve been joined by some urban transit agencies. But Aloisi of Massachusetts spoke for many of them when he said, “I’m not sure I want the federal government too deep into my operations. You just don’t know what would come with that.”

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AFL-CIO Flexing Its Muscle for Senate Transit Operating Aid Bill

The AFL-CIO, a formidable lobbying force in Washington, is throwing its weight behind a Senate bill offered last week that would authorize $2 billion in emergency funding for transit agencies forced to hike fares or cut service in lean budgetary times.

JesseJacksonPhoto.JPGRev. Jesse Jackson, second from left, has joined transit workers' unions in their Save Our Ride campaign. (Photo: Streetsblog NYC)
"Unless the U.S. Senate passes" the transit operating legislation, the union's Mike Hall wrote in a Friday blog post, "working families who count on public transportation systems in communities across the country will face even more severe fare increases and service cuts and transit workers are looking at further layoffs."

The president of the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department, Ed Wytkind, also pushed for passage of the Senate bill in a National Journal guest blog post this morning. The Amalgamated Transit Union and the Transport Workers Union, both AFL-CIO members, have aligned with Rev. Jesse Jackson, environmental groups, and civil-rights advocates for a campaign dubbed Save Our Ride that seeks to stave off sweeping transit cuts in major cities.

The unions have several hurdles to clear before the transit funding becomes available, however. The Senate legislation contains only authorizing language, meaning that lawmakers must quickly follow with "appropriating" language that technically disburses the operating money.

That two-step process would have been accomplished quickly by attaching the transit aid to a larger bill that is considered "must-pass" by Congress, such as the upcoming supplemental funding bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Republican senators vowed early on to oppose any attempt to add unrelated spending to that measure, and the Senate passed its version sans transit aid before adjourning for the Memorial Day recess.

That leaves room for the AFL-CIO to generate momentum for another vehicle to carry the transit funding -- but given the resistance among both House and Senate Democrats to any new spending not offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget, the union may face an uphill battle this summer.

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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.

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Jackson Joins Transit Unions to Rally for More Federal Operating Aid

_1.jpgThe scene at today's transit workers' rally on Capitol Hill. (Photo: Steve Davis)
"CONGRE$$ PLEASE HELP." 

"THINK BEFORE YOU CUT."

"HANDS OFF OUR BUS OPERATORS."

The messages were stark on Capitol Hill today as hundreds of transit workers gathered to protest the wave of local budget shortfalls that are threatening many of their jobs and called on Congress to approve an increase in federal operating aid.

The rail and bus workers came from New York, Boston, and Atlanta, toting signs to the doorstep of the Senate for a rally sponsored by the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the Transport Workers Union, an arm of the AFL-CIO. Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has put urban transit cuts near the top of his personal agenda in recent months, also addressed the workers.

One after another, the presidents of local union chapters took to the microphones with the same warning to Democrats in Congress: Transit workers are not inclined to help save the jobs of lawmakers who do not try to return the favor.

"It's amazing how the people that built the systems are the first ones who want to cut the systems," said Robert Kelly, chief of Chicago's ATU Local 308 chapter. "If Washington doesn't hear us, let's get rid of 'em."

Other union leaders sounded similar notes, vowing to limit their campaign contributions unless urban areas are permitted to spend more federal money on transit operating. Current law allows major cities to use 10 percent of their federal transit stimulus grants to keep buses and trains running, but that provision will have a limited effect as the next fiscal year approaches and recovery aid from Washington dwindles.

"We won't win this fight in the cities, we won't win it in the states," said Angelo Tanzi, president of Staten Island's local ATU chapter, finishing with a cry for permanent, "dedicated" federal transit operating funds.

The unions' efforts have the support of House transport committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) as well as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, but their chances of success this summer remain slim.

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As Minneapolis Joins NACTO, Oberstar Backs Shift on Transit Operating Aid

At an event in Minneapolis today, House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) announced his support for giving urban transit agencies more flexibility to spend federal transportation formula money on operating -- a change in the current law that has already won the backing of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood but has split the transit industry.
transit_oberstar_3_30_10.jpgOberstar (center) joined New York City transport chief Janette Sadik-Khan (right) at today's event. (Photo: B.Clements, Finance & Commerce)
Oberstar appeared at an event marking Minneapolis' move to join the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), founded 14 years ago by then-New York City Transportation Commissioner Elliot Sander to counterbalance the influence of state DOTs' voice in D.C., the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Oberstar's specific remarks on transit operating aid were unavailable as of press time. But transport committee spokesman Jim Berard said the Minnesotan supported "in principle" the concept of allowing transit agencies from areas with populations greater than 200,000 to use their federal transportation formula grants on operating expenses. Under current law, urban transit agencies are restricted to spending federal formula money on capital expenses, such as purchasing new rail cars or laying track for an expanded line. Congress agreed last year to give transit officials the freedom to redirect 10 percent of their federal stimulus aid to operating budgets, underscoring that the change was a temporary response to the recession. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the transit industry's chief lobbying group for more than a century, has opposed the use of formula grants for transit operating, preferring that already-scarce highway trust fund dollars be reserved for capital spending on rail and buses. APTA did not return a request for comment by press time on the growing support for changing the existing rules governing transit operating funds. Read more...