March 16, 2009
Sec. LaHood, Scott Testify on Transit at Senate Banking Committee Hearing
By JOHN R. BELL, Program Manager-Communications
In a hearing March 12 before the Senate Banking Committee, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood reaffirmed his commitment to public transportation and assured committee members he will work with Congress to resolve concerns about proposed changes to public transit financing and other issues.
Public transportation “is vital to enhancing the nation’s productivity and effectiveness,” LaHood told the committee, chaired by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT).
The secretary emphasized the importance of the upcoming surface transportation authorization legislation to the nation. "We need an innovative and forward-looking transportation package to keep the economic recovery going,” he said.
He listed five elements the new bill should include: safety improvements on all modes; the promotion of livable communities; an emphasis on “expanding travel choices, including transit, wherever possible” to address carbon emissions and climate change; elements to ensure transparency in the ways the investments are used; and technological innovations.
The former congressman from Illinois assured the committee of the President’s commitment to public transportation. “President Obama is from Chicago,” he noted. “And I can tell you he’s ridden a lot of buses and trains.”
During the hearing, Dodd noted concerns about proposed rule changes included in President Obama's recent budget outline that, according to APTA, "would alter the current budgetary treatment of contract authority and the 'firewalls' that have been a critical component to the multi-year planning and finance needs of recipients of transit funding." Dodd called the proposal “a fundamental alteration” to the transit’s financing system that could deal a “significant blow” to systems’ ability to make needed improvements. The secretary vowed to work with the committee.
The chairman, joined by Ranking Member Richard Shelby (R-AL), also raised concerns about the process for New Starts project approval, which Dodd called “an incredibly burdensome path.” The secretary said streamlining is possible, citing the quick and efficient disbursement of transportation funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).
Shelby asked if public transit might someday rely more on the General Fund than the Highway Trust Fund. LaHood said that, while “the Highway Trust Fund was adequate for building the Interstate Highway System,” it is “antiquated” with “not enough resources…to do all the things you want to do.” He mentioned as potential additional funding mechanisms public-private partnerships, lane tolling, and a National Infrastructure Bank — an idea espoused by Dodd.
In answer to Sen. Jack Reed’s (D-RI) inquiry about what systems could expect regarding operational assistance, LaHood offered what he called his “own personal view.” He said “it’s common sense” that something must be done if buses or trains sit idle because of a dearth of operational funding.
Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI) voiced concern regarding a Federal Transit Administration Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would curtail public transit systems’ ability to support student transportation. The secretary said his department would “evaluate all the elements. We know that this is a very serious problem” in many states.
Scott: A Need for More Investment
Dr. Beverly Scott, general manager and chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority and chair of APTA, told the committee in her testimony: “We desperately need a significantly greater investment in all aspects of our nation’s public transportation infrastructure.”
She pointed to recent progress but added: “We are still largely suited up in 20th-century armor for a 21st-century world—from how we fund public transportation to how we organize public transportation, to how we manage public transportation and deliver all of the various programs.”
While much recent discussion focuses on public transportation needs and funding formulas, Scott said more focus should be given to strategic issues such as national goals, mode-neutral resource allocation, outcomes, standards, performance metrics, and the future of the nation’s public transit system. She called the committee’s attention to APTA’s TransitVision 2050 report.
“Getting from here to there will definitely require a significant shift in thinking, planning, funding, organizing, managing, and a broader range of tools,” Scott said, such as “alternative business models, public-private partnerships, funding strategies including tolls, usage fees, a national infrastructure bank, and innovative project delivery methods like design-build/operate-maintain approaches where it makes sense.”
She also gave her support to Dodd’s call for the establishment of a White House Office of Sustainability.
Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper discussed public transit’s contributions to energy independence in his testimony before the committee. “Oil independence starts with giving people good alternatives,” he explained. Going forward, “all federally assisted transportation investments must address energy and climate concerns in addition to mobility.”
Hickenlooper noted that last year the U.S. Conference of Mayors called for a metropolitan mobility program that would emphasize economic development and sustainability.
Joseph Marie, commissioner of Connecticut DOT, also testified at the hearing. The funding crisis facing transit systems is due in great part to two factors, he said: “Our operating costs are growing … And at the same time, we have infrastructure that is requiring of more tender loving care. So we have these big capital needs colliding with big operating needs, and we’re all struggling around the country.”
Marie--chair of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' Standing Committee on Public Transportation--echoed the call for a streamlining of the New Starts process, noting that his state is planning a new Bus Rapid Transit busway between New Britain and Hartford.