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What Will the Senate Bill’s Transit Section Look Like?

Though the House Republicans are stealing the show these days with their endeavor to tie infrastructure funding to oil drilling, let’s not forget there’s a serious, bipartisan transportation reauthorization bill out there that actually has a chance of passage: the Senate’s MAP-21. On its path toward a full Senate vote, that two-year bill is paused at its latest checkpoint: the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. The committee is now busy tackling the transit title of the “MAP-21” legislation, following unanimous approval of the "highway" portion two weeks ago by the EPW Committee. (Quick reminder: the funding in the highway title can be spent on many things that are not highways, like transit systems and bike lanes.)

Federal funding for new buses is nice, but it's even better if the new bill allows some money to be used to pay people to drive those buses. Photo: ##

With a markup anticipated in early December, the Banking Committee is keeping mum on what changes may be in store for transit, but Streetsblog has managed to glean a few indicators.

One basic funding detail that seems already locked down is that the longstanding 80/20 division between highway and transit funds will be maintained. The EPW highway bill lays out $109 billion in total spending over two years, with $85 billion allotted toward highways – meaning transit should expect to see most of the remaining $24 billion, minus whatever is shaved off to fund programs that make motor vehicles safer for passengers.

Some transit and environmental advocates had been hoping that a reauthorization bill would finally give transit a larger slice of the pie, especially after President Obama announced in February that he’d like to see something closer to a 74/26 split.

“In an ideal world, yes – the share should be increased to a quarter or a third if not more,” said Deron Lovaas, federal transportation policy director for NRDC. But right now, he said, “it’s pretty clear that’s not going to be the case.”

Phineas Baxandall of U.S. PIRG views this as a “disappointment,” noting that current transit funding is “inadequate” and lamenting that the EPW “has not made room for greater transit investment.”

“America needs to invest in more and better public transportation to meet the rising demand for ridership and reduce our nation’s dependence on oil,” Baxandall said.

The EPW bill sets the tone for transit in other ways as well. It emphasizes streamlining and consolidation – the bill whittles 90 federal highway programs down to 30. Will the Banking Committee repeat this kind of consolidation with the transit portion?

That’s a big question,” said Lovaas. “Presumably, that’s something they’d want to bring to transit.”

Brian Tynan, director of government relations at APTA, said a move in that direction would only be natural. The tide is generally shifting, he said, toward “making it easier for transit agencies and their communities to move forward on these projects; to get these things built faster or more efficiently.”

But David Goldberg, communications director for Transportation for America, predicted that the proposals for transit won’t be as dramatic as the ones for highways. “We don’t think there’s going to be the kind of reform or change that they’re reaching for in the highway title,” he said. “We’re expecting that they’ll keep the existing framework… We expect some program consolidation, but we don’t expect a big reworking.”

And then there’s the unusual note of bipartisan accord the EPW bill struck, passing 18-0.

“I hope we can see a similar vote in the Senate banking committee,” said Tynan. The EPW Committee was “able to find common ground on a number of things,” he said. “I think that’s a good sign.”

Testimony from a May Banking Committee hearing, featuring FTA administrator Peter Rogoff and then-APTA president Bill Millar, offered an early preview of issues the transit title might address:

Increased flexibility for spending on operating costs. Some believe one long-sought goal of transit advocates – operations funding for all transit systems – could make its way into MAP-21.

Currently, the “Urbanized Area Formula Funding” program restricts areas with populations above 200,000 to using federal transit funds for capital projects. Advocates would like to see temporary, targeted funding available for operating costs for agencies of all sizes.

“What we’ve seen is that, just as demand for transit increases because of an economic downtown or spiking gas prices, transit systems have had some of the worst trouble in maintaining their service,” said Steven Higashide, federal advocate for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “Giving them the flexibility to have funds for operating could iron out some of these shocks.”

There are a few different ideas out there about how exactly this flexibility should apply. One of the latest proposals – legislation introduced by Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO) – suggests that unemployment rates and gas-price spikes could trigger eligibility.

“Obama in the past has proposed more limited flexibility,” said Higashide. “At this point we’re just not sure where the Banking Committee stands on this issue.”

It’s probable that some major cities would balk at such a change, which could draw funds away from their own complex operations and destine them for smaller metros.

Streamlining of the New Starts program. It seems likely the bill will in some way address criticisms of the New Starts program, which gives out discretionary grants to various types of new bus and rail projects. Many have criticized its approval processes as thanklessly time-consuming and costly.

Projects are “getting in an awfully long line and waiting an awfully long time to get the full funding agreement to get their projects done,” said Goldberg.

Both the FTA and APTA support streamlining the three-step New Starts process. They say a “Project Development” stage could replace two existing steps, while the redundant “Alternative Analysis” step could be dropped.

The FTA also recommended eliminating the program’s “Small Starts” project category in favor of two new ones: Capital Investment Grant projects and Exempt projects, which request less than 10 percent of their funds from this program, not exceeding $100 million.

In August, though, the FTA backed off from its proposals, advising no major changes to New Starts or Small Starts.

New programs for workforce development. One idea that’s won support is a proposal by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) to simultaneously fight unemployment and provide trained workers for transit systems. Under his plan, the FTA would set up a central workforce development council, along with 10 regional councils, which would identify skills gaps and develop corresponding training programs for the transit industry.

The FTA wants to target the training funds in areas of high unemployment and set requirements for local hiring on certain construction projects.

Consolidation of specialized transportation funding. A provision included in Obama’s FY2012 transportation budget, backed by APTA and the FTA, would merge three separate programs: Job Access and Reverse Commute, helping low-income earners travel to work; New Freedom, targeting transit users with disabilities; and the Elderly and Disabled Formula. The first two programs give grants through state and public bodies, while the latter works through private nonprofits.

Countless other proposals have been under discussion as well, including support for innovative projects and research, transit funding after disasters, and performance-based planning and incentives.

I think they want to move quickly,” Lovaas said of the committee’s work right now. “The hope is for the transit and safety titles to be marked up as quickly as possible, which ramps up the pressure on the Finance Committee.”

Still, Goldberg warned that “some ideological positions or skepticism about transit-oriented development” might be part of the debate, making the process longer and more partisan than in the past.

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