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The Perils of Taking Transit Advice From an Alabama Senator

4:44 PM EDT on August 5, 2009

During yesterday's Senate Banking Committee hearing on transit's funding needs, the most emotional testimony came from Washington D.C.'s Metro chief, John Catoe -- who, as the Washington Post reported, delivered an abject plea for federal aid to keep his system running safely.

shelby_richard_senator_r_al.jpgWould you take transit advice from this Alabama senator? (Photo: Left Eye on the Media)

Catoe's rail network has become the locus of a national safety debate after a June 22 crash killed nine riders. Metro stands to receive $150 million as part of the U.S. DOT's annual spending bill, but its needs in an era of record-high ridership and regional growth are much bigger: $7 billion over the next 10 years to keep the existing system in good shape, according to Catoe.

As the Post observed, the Banking panel's chief Republican wasn't sure that transit systems should get federal aid after putting off repairs in favor of capacity boosting:

Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), though, expressed concern that thevery systems requesting help put too much money into expanding theircapacity in past years without doing the maintenance they say is sobacklogged now.

"I know it's a mixed bag," he said. "If you don't grow, you can't finish your system."

One wonders if Shelby is aware of the paltry resources that Congress has provided to transit agencies that want to maintain their existing systems without expanding rail lines.

The largest source of funding for equipment improvements, the Federal Transit Administration's (FTA) fixed guideway program, has what the FTA chief describes as a formula without a strategy. Even so, the FTA reported in April that fixed guideway money should be doubled in order to keep urban transit in good working order.

Perhaps Shelby would prefer to see states step up and provide the lion's share of money for transit repairs. After all, his home state opened the country's first electric trolley network in 1886. Oh, wait -- Alabama has provided zero dedicated state funding for transit since 1952.

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