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Rail News: Federal Legislation & Regulation

House transportation bill would result in 'dire consequences' for many agencies, transit leaders say

In an American Public Transportation Association (APTA) conference call held yesterday, the top leaders of several U.S. transit agencies discussed the impact the House’s proposed surface transportation bill — now under consideration in the chamber — would have on their respective agencies.

The House is considering a $260 billion, five-year surface transportation bill that includes a proposal to eliminate the Mass Transit Account from the Highway Trust Fund. The account, which has been in place since 1983, dedicates a portion of the federal gas tax to support public transit investments. The House bill would remove the account and funnel all gas tax revenue to highways.

Losing the long-term source of dedicated federal funding would have “dire consequences” for public transportation, APTA President and Chief Executive Officer Michael Melaniphy said during the media conference call.

Several agency leaders outlined scenarios in which the loss of the Mass Transit Account would hinder their ability to complete capital projects, maintain their systems’ state of good repair and lower their bond ratings to a point that would make the cost of borrowing too expensive.

Elimination of the Mass Transit Account would make it difficult for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) to complete ongoing capital projects to repair and upgrade the system, including a major undertaking to upgrade escalators, said General Manager and Chief Executive Officer Richard Sarles.

“This [proposal] would directly impact the work we are doing to fix what’s broken in our system,” he said.

If federal funding becomes uncertain, WMATA would devote every dollar to safety issues first, then make difficult choices about which projects to fund, such as trackwork, station improvements or escalator repairs, said Sarles.

“Customers, residents and visitors will bear the burden of funding cuts with train delays, bus delays and longer lines,” he said. “In the long run, the uncertainty over funding will affect the safety and reliability of our system.”

Prior to the creation of the Mass Transit Account, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) transportation system in New York City was in a constant state of disrepair. Since then, the reliable source of federal funds has allowed the agency to upgrade and maintain its infrastructure, buy new rail cars, and ensure a “safe and reliable” transportation system that moves 8.5 million people daily, said MTA Chairman and CEO MTA Joseph Lhota.

“But that’s now in serious jeopardy,” he said.

Melaniphy, Sarles, Lhota and the other transit executives who spoke during the conference call encouraged House lawmakers to approve a bipartisan amendment to the bill that would restore the Mass Transit Account.

— Julie Sneider

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 2/23/2012