Friday, June 11, 2010

Same Goal, Different Approaches?

For starters, writing about introduced legislation is a dubious prospect, since the vast majority of bills that are introduced in Congress go absolutely nowhere. However, the Washington Post had an article in its June 11 edition about transit operating assistance, which is too important an issue not to discuss.

As the Community Transportation Association, the Amalgamated Transit Union, Transportation for America, and others have repeatedly observed, public transit systems across the country are suffering for a lack of operating revenues, since all their traditional sources of non-federal funds - state/local fuel taxes, local property taxes, state income taxes, state/local sales taxes - are at very low levels, with no real signs of recovery on the near horizon.

Through rallies and other actions, members of Congress have become aware of the transit pain that so many communities are experiencing. Two divergent legislative paths have emerged:

Congressman Russ Carnahan
(D-Mo.) introduced a bill, H.R. 2746, which would allow Section 5307 federal transit grants to urbanized areas with more than 200,000 population be able to use some of these funds to help cover their operating costs (under current law, these "large-urban" areas' Section 5307 funds can only be used for capital assistance, with a few narrow exceptions). To date, this legislation has picked up 131 co-sponsors in the House; at a time when almost everything in the House of Representatives splits along party lines, it should be noted that there are 7 Republican co-sponsors of Rep. Carnahan's bill. In the Senate, very similar legislation (S. 3189) was introduced by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

The other legislative strategy is found in legislation introduced last month in the Senate (S. 3412) by Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and in the House (H.R. 5418) by Mike McMahon (D-N.Y.). The Dodd-McMahon legislation would authorize a one-time supplemental appropriation of $2.0 billion, which would be distributed using existing formulas to all Section 5307 and Section 5311 grantees.

The problem these bills would address is very real, and very current, as the reports on transit service cuts and fare increases continue to stream in, and as cities' transit agencies continue to struggle with balancing their budgets in the current economy. So far, no hearings or other Congressional action on either the Carnahan-Brown or Dodd-McMahon bills has taken place or been scheduled, nor does any substantive action appear to be likely in the near future. Nonetheless, transit interests from New York to Los Angeles, to everyplace in between, have been joining DOT Secretary Ray LaHood and FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff in saying that something needs to be done to help transit in urban America.

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