Transit Operating Aid Bill Doesn’t Fly With Major D.C. Transit Group

A burgeoning congressional push to let urban transit agencies tap federal funds for operating their systems is not sitting well with the transit industry’s largest D.C. lobbying group, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

nyc_subway_mta_walder_transit.jpgA rail car from New York City’s transit authority, one of APTA’s biggest members. (Photo: TreeHugger)

Paul Dean, APTA’s government relations director, told Streetsblog Capitol Hill yesterday that legislation permanently opening the cash-strapped highway trust fund to transit operating budgets is "really not consistent with our position."

APTA, which has advocated for the transit industry on the Hill for more than a century, wants to see the highway trust fund remain a dedicated source of transit capital aid — purchasing new equipment or maintaining existing infrastructure, for example.

The group continues to support temporary federal operating aid during the recession, which has forced many local rail and bus systems into layoffs, service cuts, and fare hikes. Still, APTA’s skepticism could be a major obstacle to passage of the legislation setting up permanent operating assistance from Washington, which is sponsored by Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH).

Dean noted that congressional budget scoring treats a transit-capital dollar, which has a long-term impact on the value of equipment, more favorably than a transit-operating dollar, which tends to be spent immediately on employee salaries. Congressional aides and lawmakers have told APTA that "they can give us a bigger, better bill if funds are used primarily for capital," he said.

Dean also highlighted the importance of ensuring dedicated financial support for transit from outside the federal sphere.  "A lot of folks look at it as a zero-sum
game," he added, "that if you add a federal subsidy, that’s going to lead to state and local governments decreasing
their contribution, and you’re going to be back in the same place you were — with less money
available to meet your capital needs."

APTA’s stance leaves the transit industry split on the operating-aid issue. A new lobbying coalition, the Alliance for Transit Operating Assistance, reflects a collaboration between the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA), where rural transit agencies have a strong voice.

CTAA spokesman Scott Bogren told Streetsblog Capitol Hill that his group continues to talk with APTA about finding common ground on operating aid, adding that concerns about transit capital budgets are shared across the board.

But Bogren described existing law, which allows cities with fewer than 200,000 residents to spend federal money on transit operating, as oftentimes incompatible with the daily reality of many growing urban areas.

"There’s got to be balance," he said. "That 200,000 population is just a cliff that a system falls off." As the economy continues to flag, he said the CTAA is making sure that lawmakers hear from "enough of the mid-sized and smaller urban operators that are feeling some pain."

Conversely, Dean said that it is APTA’s biggest members, the transit networks with "dedicated
operating budgets and considerable state-of-good-repair needs," that are most vocally opposed to permanent operating aid from the highway trust fund. That description tracks with a statement that New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) provided to Streetsblog New York during debate on last year’s federal stimulus law.

In its response last year, the MTA said its top priority was seeking reliable funding from the state, not the federal government, and pointed out that its annual capital aid "from Washington has gone up from about $200 million
to about $1.5 billion today."

8 thoughts on Transit Operating Aid Bill Doesn’t Fly With Major D.C. Transit Group

  1. Nationally, if I were seeking to destroy public transportation, I couldn’t think of a better partner than the transit unions.

    “We’ll give you a few years of ‘free money’ so more of the members with seniority can qualify for their pensions, using bigger raises to inflation them. If there is a disaster down the road, it won’t matter because you’ll be retired to Florida.”

    I must admit that the TWU has been less destructive with regard to selling out future members than the other unions in NYC, and apparently other transit unions. But they might be under the delusion that the suckers who ride public transit will be the losers, and that the same number of people will be paying dues while providing devastated service.

    If “transit advocates” want to put an indefinate stop to all expansion of mass transit across the country by shifting the money to short term needs, fine. But to cut off ongoing normal replacement so existing systems atrophy and collapse, a popular move for senior citizens who don’t expect to be around, is just more evil taking advantage of shortsighteness.

    Just remember, the federal government is the only level of government that has given the MTA cash — as opposed to debt — for ongoing normal replacement since the mid-1990s.

  2. Less money for ongoing reinvestment is a terrible thing. Get the operating funds elsewhere.

  3. “if you add a federal subsidy, that’s going to lead to state and local governments decreasing their contribution, and you’re going to be back in the same place you were — with less money available to meet your capital needs.”

    That is exactly what happen. Giving the money for operations really means giving the money for the city’s general fund.

    I’m OK with using it for operations under emergency conditions, but it would need to be a national emergency, like 40% of all transit systems cutting service or something. But even then, I feel like in those situations it really goes to the state’s general fund. Schwarzenegger is the one of the main parties responsible for the huge deficits in transit agencies across the state.

  4. APTA is the public transit industry’s lobbying group. But who exactly is the transit industry? I mean, is it companies that construct public transit systems, companies that operate them by contract, public agencies that run them (the MTA?), transit unions?

  5. “Get the operating funds elsewhere.”

    There are only two places to get the funds, you can get it from the private sector in higher fares or bond sales, or the Federal Government can print it. The only real question is whether or not we are in a financial crisis and how bad is that crisis? I think that is an easy answer, very bad.

    Larry’s analysis is quite correct in retrospect, revising history to what we should have done from 1994 to 2008 with regard to pension funding and leveraging the business cycle. But that is yesterday’s war. There would be no money or jobs at all if the Fed hadn’t bailed out the banks and wages would have fallen enough all around to lower fares. But that didn’t happen. As it is the Operating Budget is still supporting the Capital budget. Why is it OK for the riders and taxpayers to drain the operating budget to fund capital but not let the Federal Government print money for the benefit of both.

    The purpose of a stimulus is to stimulate. That means jobs. Jobs mean higher wages and benefits. Having a stimulus that doesn’t result in jobs is just what the Republicans are accusing Mr. Obama of advocating. Taking jobs out of stimulus is like taking orgasm out of sex.

    And, if the only reason you can come up for not taking Federal Operating Aid is that it will support wages and benefits then you are simply setting the stage for the localities further abandoning all capital investment as well. This is already happening. The states and cities have no money, the Feds do. There is no MTA capital budget and no one asks why.

    From a “livable streets” point of view there is also the issue of competition with the automobile political economy. Even if you factor out the de facto operating money that went to the auto manufacturers (cash for clunkers, etc.) you have the issue that there are no operating expenses in automobile America. Individuals do it for free, for fun even, killing only 40,000 a year or so. Mass transit, on the other hand, has all those employees, with jobs and healthcare and retirement needs. So, the position that the Federal Government is properly prohibited from supporting local transportation operating budgets only further disadvantages mass transit vis a vis the automobile political-economy.

  6. So, Price, you are in favor of eliminating “capital spending,” and continue to borrow for operating, and will credit the state legislature for heroism (forgetting the past) when they do so? And when do you think that will end?

    The goal of a generation is to extract as much as possible for as long as possible and leave New York City, New York State, and the United States in ruins. The say “let us grab more for us now to be paid for by someone else later or we’ll make you suffer.”

    What if pensions were to be cut, or at least taxed, before taxes on workers would be made to soar or public services gutted in the future? Then those taking money off the top might think twice.

  7. I am very disturbed that paying workers a decent wage is a problem, but paying for more concrete is OK.

    You know, workers are the ones who pay taxes, and paying bus drivers stimulates the economy.

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