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Lawmakers Push to Fund Transit Service During Economic Emergencies

4:16 PM EST on December 19, 2011

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: ##http://gothamist.com/2009/10/20/mta_chief_means_business_on_getting.php##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."

Indeed, if ordinary car commuters think a dollar or two jump in gas prices makes a difference in their household expenses, just imagine the burden for transit agencies burning thousands of gallons a day. Meanwhile, the American Public Transportation Association estimated earlier this year that $4-a-gallon gas translates into an additional 670 million passenger trips in a year [PDF], further straining underfunded systems struggling to absorb higher fuel costs.

Lawmakers have been under pressure from localities to allow for more flexibility at the local level about the use of the funding. Communities often find themselves with garages full of new, federally-funded buses and no ability to pay drivers, since the funding is only for capital expenses, not operations. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has gotten behind a temporary fix as well.

The House bill hasn't gone far since being referred to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, but that may not be a bad sign. Sen. Brown is hoping his bill will get rolled into the broader transportation reauthorization bill, and is reportedly in conversations with the Banking Committee to make that happen. Remember, though, that even if the final transportation bill is a six-year bill, the operating assistance wouldn't necessarily continue for six years, but only as long as the conditions above are met.

The House bill has gone through various contortions since being introduced in July, being re-imagined as a front for expanded oil drilling and having its funding levels bumped up to a level more acceptable to industry, but it hasn't actually gone anywhere. Committee Chair John Mica recently told Politico his ideal scenario: "If all goes well, hopefully we can finish FAA in January and begin thereafter the transportation bill," he said. "But I don't set the floor schedule."

Banking, meanwhile, was hoping to move forward on the transit portion of the Senate bill last Friday but time got away from it. The most likely rain date will be in early February, as the Senate will only be in session one week in January.

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