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Transit Operating Aid Bill Doesn’t Fly With Major D.C. Transit Group

A burgeoning congressional push
to let urban transit agencies tap federal funds for operating their
systems is not sitting well with the transit industry's largest D.C.
lobbying group, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

nyc_subway_mta_walder_transit.jpgA rail car from New York City's transit authority, one of APTA's biggest members. (Photo: TreeHugger)

Paul Dean, APTA's government relations director, told Streetsblog Capitol Hill yesterday that legislation
permanently opening the cash-strapped highway trust fund to transit
operating budgets is "really not consistent with our position."

APTA,
which has advocated for the transit industry on the Hill for more than
a century, wants to see the highway trust fund remain a dedicated
source of transit capital aid -- purchasing new equipment or
maintaining existing infrastructure, for example.

The
group continues to support temporary federal operating aid during the
recession, which has forced many local rail and bus systems into
layoffs, service cuts, and fare hikes. Still, APTA's skepticism could
be a major obstacle to passage of the legislation setting up permanent
operating assistance from Washington, which is sponsored by Rep. Russ
Carnahan (D-MO) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH).

Dean
noted that congressional budget scoring treats a transit-capital
dollar, which has a long-term impact on the value of equipment, more
favorably than a transit-operating dollar, which tends to be spent
immediately on employee salaries. Congressional aides and lawmakers
have told APTA that "they can give us a bigger, better bill if funds
are used primarily for capital," he said.

Dean
also highlighted the importance of ensuring dedicated financial support
for transit from outside the federal sphere.  "A lot of folks look at
it as a zero-sum
game," he added, "that if you add a federal subsidy, that's going to
lead to state and local governments decreasing
their contribution, and you're going to be back in the same place you
were -- with less money
available to meet your capital needs."

APTA's stance leaves the transit industry split on the operating-aid issue. A new lobbying coalition,
the Alliance for Transit Operating Assistance, reflects a collaboration
between the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Community Transportation
Association of America (CTAA), where rural transit agencies have a strong voice.

CTAA
spokesman Scott Bogren told Streetsblog Capitol Hill that his group
continues to talk with APTA about finding common ground on operating
aid, adding that concerns about transit capital budgets are shared
across the board.

But Bogren described existing law, which
allows cities with fewer than 200,000 residents to spend federal money
on transit operating, as oftentimes incompatible with the daily reality
of many growing urban areas.

"There's
got to be balance," he said. "That 200,000 population is just a cliff
that a system falls off." As the economy continues to flag, he said the
CTAA is making sure that lawmakers hear from "enough of the mid-sized
and smaller urban operators that are feeling some pain."

Conversely,
Dean said that it is APTA's biggest members, the transit networks with
"dedicated
operating budgets and considerable state-of-good-repair needs," that
are most vocally opposed to permanent operating aid from the highway
trust fund. That description tracks with a statement that New York
City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) provided to Streetsblog New York during debate on last year's federal stimulus law.

In
its response last year, the MTA said its top priority was seeking
reliable funding from the state, not the federal government, and
pointed out that its annual capital aid "from Washington has gone up
from about $200 million
to about $1.5 billion today."

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