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By Angela Cotey, associate editor
In August 2005, then-President George Bush signed the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2005: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) into law — nearly two years after the bill’s predecessor, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, expired. Congress didn’t include any major changes to the transit program as part of the legislation, though it did authorize a record $52.6 billion for transit investment.
What a difference a few years and a new Congress and Administration makes. With SAFETEA-LU set to expire on Sept. 30, a new surface transportation bill is top of mind not just for transit industry execs, but also for the Obama Administration. And despite differing opinions on how and when new legislation should be passed, all parties agree on one thing: The next surface transportation bill will not be a reauthorization to extend the same programs, policies and funding levels as found in previous bills, but rather an authorization that takes new approaches to address the country’s critical infrastructure needs.
“This is an opportunity to think differently about the authorization bill,” says Gary Thomas, president and executive director of Dallas Area Rapid Transit and vice chair-rail transit for the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). “Funding is critical, but beyond that, it’s about getting people around, reducing our dependency on foreign oil, reducing our carbon footprint. We’ve got to start thinking about all of that.”
APTA officials believe the bill needs to include at least $123 billion for public transportation programs over a six-year period, more than double the current appropriation, to support an anticipated doubling of ridership during the next 20 years and at least half the cost of bringing capital assets to a state of good repair.
And how the money is used will be just as important as how much money is available. For example, the criteria used to determine which projects receive federal New Starts funding should be revisited, says Thomas, adding that in recent years, the Federal Transit Administration has put too much stock in a user benefit number — which is based on factors such as travel time savings and projected ridership — to decide how to allocate Full Funding Grant Agreements.
“You can’t get too hung up on the bottom line,” he says. “For example, transit-oriented development should be more in the forefront of the decision-making process. What is a city’s history of TOD projects? Is there momentum behind them? Is the community starting to embrace sustainability? Granted, that becomes more subjective, but we have to have the ability to look at that.”
The New Starts process needs other reforms, as well. On average, it takes 14 years to get a New Starts project off the ground, says Paul Dean, APTA’s director of government relations. The association wants Congress to take steps to cut the process at least in half.
“If we could take some of the different levels of review and put them on a parallel track rather than putting them one after another, it would certainly help,” says Dean. “We could combine some stages into a single stage, such as preliminary analysis and alternatives analysis.”
APTA has a host of other recommendations for the upcoming transportation bill, too. According to its campaign, “Public Transit Takes Us There,” those recommendations include: replacing the current seven-tier Fixed Guideway Modernization Program with a simplified two-tier system; expanding workforce development programs; promoting the development of revenue generated from innovative financing mechanisms; retaining at least an 80 percent federal match ratio for all capital public transportation projects; and creating incentives to increase state and local investment in public transportation.
APTA leaders also note the need for developing a national transportation policy as part of the next authorization bill — something that could help dictate how and where funds are allocated.
“It’s just like anything we do here [at DART] — we have a system plan, financial plan, service plan, strategic plan; we have objectives in place that guide us and direct us on how we put all the pieces together for our service area,” says Thomas. “You don’t want people trying to dictate what’s going to happen in Dallas, but there should be some talk about how we do this more efficiently.”
Having a clear policy in place would help the federal government better dictate how and where to allocate federal transportation funds, says Beverly Scott, general manager and chief executive officer for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority.
“Investments that are anchored at the federal level need to be tied to measurable goals. What are we trying to accomplish in terms of competitiveness, livability, land use, greenhouse gas reductions?” asks Scott, who also chairs APTA. “You have to have some real performance metrics and transparency and accountability.”
A transportation policy also should level the playing field between modes.
“We shouldn’t be saying, ‘This is the highway money and this is the transit money.’ We should be talking about the outcomes we want to achieve,” says Scott.
Program streamlining, increased funding levels and policy issues are addressed in an authorization bill proposal released in June by the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, which is led by Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Ranking Member John Mica (R-Fla.). The Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009 calls for allocating $99.8 billion for public transportation.
The bill also proposes to consolidate or terminate more than 75 transportation programs and focus the majority of transit funding into four core categories, which are designed to: bring urban and rural pubic transit systems to a state of good repair; provide specific funding to restore transit-rail systems; provide mobility and access to transit-dependent individuals; and foster the planning, design and construction of new transit lines and intermodal facilities.
The measure would “significantly reduce the time and administrative burden for projects in the approval process,” and restructure key functions and offices within the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) to institute reforms and processes that “foster greater collaboration and efficiency,” according to the legislation’s executive summary.
The bill also proposes to create a National Transportation Strategic Plan and establish an Office of Intermodalism within the USDOT to oversee the plan’s development and implementation.
The bill “shows that Oberstar appreciated some things needed to change,” says Thomas. However, because of the magnitude of the changes needed and since the Highway Trust Fund is nearly depleted, the Obama Administration in June proposed its own plan: reauthorizing the existing surface transportation bill for 18 months, mostly to shore up the Highway Trust Fund, a portion of which funds the Mass Transit Account.
“If this step is not taken, the trust fund will run out of money as soon as late August,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a statement. “With the reality of our fiscal environment and the critical demand to address our infrastructure in a smarter, more focused approach, we should not rush legislation.”
While they support passage of a bill this year, the logic behind the Administration’s proposal makes sense, transit execs say.
“The Administration is pushing a lot of different initiatives in a hurry,” says Thomas. “We don’t want to rush through this because it’s critical that we get it right — we only do it every six years.’”
But Thomas and Scott are concerned that an 18-month reauthorization could develop into an even longer hold-up.
“I would hate to see the best intentions go awry because politics got involved,” says Scott. “We are supportive of prompt action, but if the bill is delayed, then let’s be focused and let us be clear with the outcome. If it’s delayed 18 months, then at the end of that time, let’s have a bill in place.”
Whether that bill is in place this fall or sometime in the next 18 months, transit execs feel good about the prospects of it including some much-needed changes to the transportation program. And that could set the standard for a new outlook on transit at the regional and local level, as well.
“We can’t expect the federal government to come riding in on a white horse and solve all the issues,” says Scott. “Transportation is one of those anchors, if you will, for American competitiveness and quality of life, and that means every single level of government really needs to step up.”