Mass Transit Loved by Locals, but Tough for Feds

Step into the office of a member of Congress to talk about transportation and you’ll probably get an earful about the size and scope of federal transit programs. Democrats generally want more investment. Some Republicans question whether the federal government should even be involved.

Step into a city council chamber, however, and you’ll hear something different. Growing interest in public transit, especially among young people, has local officials clamoring for the federal government to fund transportation.

“America needs something new,” Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker told fellow mayors and other city officials in Washington, D.C., at the National League of Cities’ annual summit earlier this spring. “We certainly have been, in the last half century, a country whose surface transportation has evolved around the vehicle. ... This vision has run its course.”

Running through Salt Lake City is a 45-mile, county-wide, light-rail system that expanded to reach the airport in 2013. There’s also the Sugar House streetcar, a two-and-a-half mile system stretching between Salt Lake City and its neighbor, South Salt Lake.

Becker, a Democrat, called it “the catalyst for enormous development,” estimating it stimulated more than $400 million in investment. It’s part of a change in the expectations of constituents, he said.

Utah’s transit authority reported record ridership in 2014, with roughly 45 million boardings, according to Remi Barron, an agency spokesman.

“To ignore these changes, and not adapt to them and not invest intelligently with federal transportation dollars, to me, is a real misplacement of taxpayer dollars,” Becker said.

Many city officials say transit spurs development and draws corporations to communities where people can get to work without a car. Transit-oriented development has become a buzzword and companies such as Siemens are trumpeting the benefits of such projects.

The engineering giant included Salt Lake City’s rail projects in an economic impact study on infrastructure projects and found that work on public transit in the city resulted in more than $225 million in business sales and 1,300 jobs.

Economic Development Research Group, which analyzed the rail expansion projects in Salt Lake City, said major companies including Adobe, eBay, Goldman Sachs and Overstock.com based office-location decisions partly on proximity to light-rail and commuter-rail stations.

But public transit isn’t an easy a choice for many in Congress, partly because transit projects are expensive and federal dollars are increasingly hard to find.

The Federal Problem

The acting director of the Federal Transit Administration, Therese W. McMillan, told the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee in April that transit systems were “crumbling at the seams.” She urged Congress to address an $86 billion maintenance backlog she said would grow by $2.5 billion a year if it’s not addressed.

But House appropriators propose keeping federal transit funding flat and cutting the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority funding by $50 million, though that number was subject to change depending on Wednesday floor action.

Much of the federal spending for transit systems comes from the Highway Trust Fund, which has financial problems of its own. For fiscal 2015, about 15 percent of what’s spent from the fund will go to transit and 85 percent to highways, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

But in order to just extend programs past their current expiration date of July 31 to the end of this year, Congress will have to make up an $8 billion shortfall between what the fund collects, mainly from motor fuels taxes, and the cost of programs Congress has authorized, the Congressional Budget Office said in a letter sent last week to Rep. Sander M. Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee.

In March, the CBO estimated a shortfall in the fund for mass transit programs of $3 billion for fiscal 2016.

That’s led some in Washington to target mass transit. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., introduced a bill that would eliminate the transit account from the Highway Trust Fund (HR 1461).

Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, said the federal government should stop subsidizing public transit.

“Congress likes to fund ribbons, not brooms,” O’Toole said. “We have this huge impetus to build new, not enough of an impetus to maintain what we’ve got and I think a lot of that comes from federal funding. If the federal government would just stop funding these new projects, the transit systems would be a lot better off.”

That view is echoed by some Republicans, including Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, chairman of the Banking Committee. He said he’s reluctant to spend more on new projects such as subway expansions and fixed guide-way systems without stable funding for the future.

“The one thing we do not need is infrastructure that cannot be adequately maintained,” Shelby said at an April hearing, a comment that drew a sharp response from ranking Democrat Sherrod Brown of Ohio.

“We’re saying we shouldn’t invest in new infrastructure until we fund existing infrastructure, but we’re not funding existing infrastructure,” Brown said. “We’re sort of chasing our tail in a kind of circular argument, to mix metaphors here.”

The Local Issue

The American Public Transportation Association said in November that more than 72 percent of local ballot initiatives supporting public transit have gotten approval since 2000.

So why the disconnect between local and federal officials on the case for national investment in transit?

“I think at the federal level, not all, but many, members of Congress don’t understand the economic value of transit,” said Tom Bulger, a member of WMATA’s Metro Board.

Those in metro areas of the U.S. feel it in the broken escalators and the dirty subway cars — but there’s a rural impact, too. The rural systems often rely heavily on federal investment.

CQ Roll Call found in a recent analysis of federal funding for rural transit operators that, on average, 36 percent of a rural transit agency’s operations budget is federally funded. A cut to the bus and bus facilities program in the 2012 transportation authorization, and the shift from a heavily earmarked program to fund distribution by formula, has made it harder for rural operators to replace bus fleets, straining systems.

That’s the case for Prairie Hills Transit, a 38-vehicle, 50-employee operation based in Spearfish, S.D., that serves people across six counties and 12,000 square miles, according to testimony from Barbara Cline, executive director of the nonprofit transit agency.

“Our rural funding allocation under MAP-21 actually decreased,” Cline told the Senate Banking Committee in April, referring to the 2012 transportation reauthorization bill. “Most states are facing similar hardships,” Cline said. “There’s simply not enough money to go around.”