September 8, 2008
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Congress Returns to Consider Several Transit Bills
The good news as Congress returns for its fall session is that both the U.S. House and Senate may take up legislation recognizing public transportation as part of the solution to the nation’s energy problems.
The House overwhelmingly voted in June to approve H.R. 6052, the Saving Energy Through Public Transportation Act of 2008, sponsored by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-MN). Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) has introduced a companion measure in the Senate.
H.R. 6052 authorizes $1.7 billion of capital and operating funds over two years for public transit agencies, allowing them to reduce their fares, expand transit services, and cope with increased energy costs.
On July 16, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced a similar bill: H.R. 6495, the Transportation and Housing Choices for Gas Price Relief Act. The legislation is designed to help Americans cope with high gasoline prices by supporting transportation alternatives, including public transit.
In the Senate, Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Christopher Dodd (D-CT), among others, are sponsoring energy packages that would benefit public transit.
Another situation facing Congress is that, when the House recessed this summer, it had voted through only one appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2009, even though FY 2008 ends on Sept. 30. This inaction leaves Congress with three alternatives, none of which is certain:
- Congress may decide not to take action on appropriations until after the Nov. 4 election, instead passing a Continuing Resolution to keep the federal government operating after Sept. 30;
- Congress may return for a lame duck session; or
- Congress may not take up FY 2009 appropriations bills until it reconvenes in January.
To recap: The FY 2009 appropriations bill for U.S. DOT exists in two versions. The version approved by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies includes $10.3 billion for public transportation—the full amount authorized by the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, or SAFETEA-LU. In contrast, the bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee would provide a lower amount for public transit, $10.225 billion.
Both the House and Senate appropriations committees have approved FY 2009 appropriations legislation for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that includes $400 million for transit security grants.
Amtrak, Trust Fund Shortfall
Congressional staffers worked through the August recess on Amtrak authorization legislation, preparing for a conference committee slated to meet when Congress reconvenes. Some outstanding differences remain between the two versions of the Amtrak bill, and President Bush has stated his opposition to both.
The Senate made changes to the House-passed version of the Railroad Safety Enhancement Act before approving it, which means that the full House will need to reconsider the measure for final passage.
APTA has expressed support for H.R. 6532, a stand-alone measure passed by the House but not yet taken up by the Senate, which would transfer $8.017 billion from that fund to the General Fund. This proposal would prevent a shortfall in the federal Highway Trust Fund in FY 2009, and will fully fund Federal Highway Administration programs. APTA also has stated its opposition to the Administration’s proposed fix, which would borrow from the Mass Transit Account, unnecessarily jeopardizing future transit funding.