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Members of Congress Report on Public Transit Priorities at Conference

Five members of Congress offered their perspectives on public transportation at a Tuesday morning session during the APTA Legislative Conference.

Nathaniel P. Ford Sr., APTA chair and chief executive officer of the Jacksonville (FL) Transportation Authority, opened the session by appealing to attendees to join APTA’s efforts to impress upon policymakers from both sides of the aisle the impact of public transportation on the communities and districts they represent and how the goods and services provided by APTA business members generate jobs and economic development.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies, described his goal of ensuring that public transportation receives its share of funding. The bills produced by his committee, he explained, reflect the truly bipartisan nature of the committee in assessing and addressing national needs and crafting funding bills that meet those needs. “Transit is an indispensable component of our economy and our lives; it helps communities grow and expand, and demand for transit continues to grow,” he said.

Reed acknowledged, however, the challenge of making the case for public transit at a time when the administration has proposed cuts to funding, saying, “While the infrastructure plan promises $200 billion in new funding over 10 years, the administration simultaneously plans to slash federal funding to existing transportation programs by $360 billion over the next decade.”

He reiterated Ford’s opening sentiments: “Your voice is absolutely critical,” he said. “When you walk into your member or senator’s office, talk about the impact public transit has in their state and in their districts, in their towns and rural areas, and they’ll start listening. When you get them listening, that gives us a chance to close the deal.”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, also appealed to attendees for support in putting forward the case for public transportation in the corridors of power. “As you visit on Capitol Hill,” he said, “make one simple request: that the Ways and Means Committee convene more hearings on transportation finance.” He noted that the committee has heard from only one witness on this topic in the past seven years.

“Let’s air the issues; let’s have the debates with experts,” he said. “Let’s have testimony from those areas that have received adequate funding for transit and the positive impact it’s had.”

Blumenauer posed that funding for public transit requires a “full federal partnership for multimodal, multi-state, long-term projects.” He suggested that one of the simplest solutions would be to raise the gas tax—one element of his three legislative principles: raising the gas tax, indexing the gas tax and ultimately replacing the gas tax.

He pointed out that future fleets of electric, autonomous vehicles would not generate revenue through a gas tax, so a replacement to the tax is required that would be sustainable over time, such as a “road user charge.” Such a charge, he said, could be adapted to congestion, with prices in congested areas raised and, subsequently, savings passed on to rural areas where more miles are typically driven.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee, said the committee chair, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), supports a 15-cent increase in the gas tax but that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) opposes it.

DeFazio said uncertainty about funding is the main reason why infrastructure projects take years to launch and complete, not excessive regulation as some politicians suggest. He also stressed the importance of building the Gateway project in New York and New Jersey, although President Trump opposes it, and noted problems he sees with the administration’s infrastructure proposal. For example, he said, state governments that have provided project funding in the past will be penalized by receiving less money under the new plan, while those that have not previously funded these projects will receive bonus points.

He also called for research into the use of fees for vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and acknowledged APTA’s efforts to “increase mobility without adding to congestion.”

T&I Committee member Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), whose district covers 14 counties, said he wants to make sure public transit issues remain a bipartisan effort and asked attendees to “help us understand how we can make our proposal work better.” While some people may believe that people who don’t live in metropolitan areas have no interest in public transportation, he said, “Transit is a big deal to my constituents and my district.”

Davis noted that the gas tax is currently the only funding source for public transit, saying it’s time to diversify funding to accommodate electric vehicles and other new technologies that don’t involve using gas or diesel.

Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO), chair of the T&I Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, said he believes the two parties can compromise on infrastructure and transportation funding issues. While acknowledging that Congress can take steps to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent into the future, he called the fuel tax “regressive” and agreed with DeFazio that VMT may be the way to go, moving forward, and that “everything’s on the table.”

Graves said he is working toward leveraging infrastructure funding at the $1 trillion level rather than the $1.5 trillion level cited by the president. He said that federal public transit grants will continue at some level and that “nothing is zeroed out.”
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