Tuesday, February 2, 2010

President's Budget Request Seeks New Dimensions to Transit Programs

It's dangerous to ascribe too much meaning to the many details that accompany a presidential budget request. However, some items in President Obama's budget request for FY 2011 lay down some informative markers that may shape Congress' response and eventual actions.

This year's federal transportation budget is a greater than usual challenge, for three reasons. One is the lack of an authorization (SAFETEA-LU expired last year, and is being sustained through a series of short-term extensions). The second is an expressed desire from this Administration for maintaining the federal motor fuels tax (which has been the source of nearly all federal transit funding since the 1980s) at the current rate of 18.4 cents per gallon, which is where it's stood since 1991. The third budget challenge is the President's expressed desire to freeze most discretionary domestic spending at current levels.

Given those challenges, the President was able to send to Congress a budget request that seeks to maintain most transportation accounts at essentially the same amounts as this year: highways @ $41.1b, aviation @ $16.5b, rail (including Amtrak and high speed rail) @ $2.8b, and transit @ $10.8b. Money was squeezed out of this tight framework to suggest a new $4.0b program of "national infrastructure innovation and finance."

Within the President's recommendations for the transit program, there is no talk of coordination, or human services, or mobility management. There is a recommendation to create a $307m livable communities program by combining the existing Job Access/Reverse Commute, Alternatives Analysis, Statewide Transit Planning, and Metropolitan Transit Planning programs. There is a recommendation to combine the Section 5310 program and New Freedom transit grants into a single formula grant program. Small amounts of funding are requested to jump-start Administration initiatives in rail transit safety and continued work in using transit as a vehicle for greenhouse gas reduction. The Administration also recommends an additional $150m appropriation for the Washington (DC) Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

Under the President's request, formula grants for urban and rural public transit, and the amounts of funding available for buses, bus facilities, fixed guideway modernization and "new starts" major capital projects would continue more or less at their current levels, although the request is made that these grants be awarded on formula bases, or at the Administration's discretion, as opposed to the prevailing practice of Congressional earmarks.

Having thus made its request, the focus of action on the budget turns to Congress, where it will remain until appropriations are signed into law.

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