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Federal Transportation Bill

A Federal Funding Primer from Transportation for America

An altered billboard from a 1983 promotional campaign in San Francisco. For the full story behind the billboard visit ##!##Found San Francisco##

(Ryan Wiggins is Transportation for America's an on the ground in Southern California.  Last week he presented a primer on transportation funding at "Expanding Our Public Transit Options: Resources to Keep LA Moving Forward?" a Salon put on by Breathe L.A.  He was nice enough to share his notes with us in a two-part series.  Today we'll focus on the federal picture.  Tomorrow on the state one. - DN)

Before 1983 all funds dedicated to transit came from the federal general fund through appropriations.  In 1983 the Mass Transit Account created 1.0 cent gas tax which was raised in 1993 to 2.86  cents per gallon.  The federal gas tax has not been raised since.

Federal transit programs such as New Starts, which is responsible for many of the nation’s major transit projects, and the newer TIGER program come from the general fund, not the gas tax, and are subject to the annual DC budget battles

For the most part federal transportation funds only fund capital projects and not operations.  The major exception is for urbanized areas under 200,000 people where some capital funds can be flexed into operations.

Two bills were introduced last year to address the increasing operating deficits that transit agencies have been facing as a result of the economic downturn, more fuel efficient cars, and people in general driving less that have decreased state revenues to cover operating expenses forcing agencies to cut services in a time when demand for transit has increased.

The first is HR 2746, introduced by Russ Carnahan (D-Missouri), that would allow regions with populations over 200,000 to use a portion of their formula transit funds to cover operating expenses. This bill does not require additional federal revenues and received significant bipartisan support in the last Congress.  It is possible for inclusion in the reauthorization of the federal bill this year.

HR 5418, introduced by outgoing Senator Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut) was known as the Public Transportation Preservation Act and would have provided $2 billion in operating assistance to states allocated through the same formulas the government uses to give out grants today. Because this money would need to be allocated from the general fund or through an increase in the federal gas tax – not likely given the current economy and the fact that it hasn’t been raised since 1993 – it likely will not be revived this year


Advocates, including T4A and its partners, are pushing for Strategic Planning in the next bill so that each federal dollar can be stretched as far as possible.  MPOs and states have traditionally been given federal funds through formulas with little accountability for ensuring that transportation projects achieve long-term desired transportation goals.

Since the federal government funds the majority of capital infrastructure projects, both transit and highway projects, this has amounted to a blank check. Ideally we’d want regions and states to have distinct long-term goals to guide the selection and planning of projects. For transit that means ensuring that planning bus, light rail lines, and walking and biking facilities interconnect seamlessly to maximize ridership and accessibility so that transit systems as a whole are as efficient and self-sustaining as possible.  It’s important to note that roads are not self-sustaining, meaning the gas tax does not cover their construction or upkeep so the goal is for transit systems to cover as much of their operating expenses as possible, not necessarily turn a profit.

In the next federal bill T4A and its partners will work to ensure that performance metrics are established on the state level and States/MPOs use them to improve planning of systems and efficiency of performance.

i.     Reduce delay

ii.     Reduce VMT

iii.     Reduce transportation oil use

iv.     Increase walking, bicycling ,  and public transportation trips

v.     Increase population meeting NAAQS standards

vi.     Increase access for vulnerable populations

vii.     Reduce household transportation costs

viii.     Increase state of good repair

For California this would help align federal policy with its efforts surrounding SB 375 and help it achieve its long-term goals.

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