Senate Transit Hearing Features Local Progress, National Criticism

One year from now, many mass transit providers in the U.S. will face a crisis. The largest providers will have spent all of their shares of the $69 billion in COVID-related aid given them by the federal government in 2020 and 2021, while they will be preparing budgets for an upcoming year where ridership, and thus farebox receipts, will still be far below pre-COVID levels.

The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee this week held Congress’s first mass transit oversight hearing since enactment of the bipartisan infrastructure law (the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or IIJA) last year, but the hearing was unusual in that it did not feature a focus on national transit issues. (Or, rather, it did, but that focus only came from the witnesses who are critical of the way mass transit in this country is run.)

There were five witnesses who testified at the March 15 hearing, three selected by the Democratic majority and two selected by the Republican minority (clicking on their name will take you to their prepared testimony):

  • Joanna Pinkerton, President & CEO, Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA), who gave an update on the status of mass transit in the home state of Banking Committee chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH).
  • Collie Greenwood, interim General Manager & CEO, Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), who gave an update on MARTA’s status (unusually, both Democratic Senators from Georgia, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, are not just on the Banking Committee but are on its Housing, Transportation and Community Development Subcommittee).
  • Greg Regan, President, Transportation Trades Division, AFL-CIO, whose testimony naturally focused on the needs of the transit workforce.
  • Dr. Dorothy Moses Schulz, Adjunct Fellow, The Manhattan Institute, whose testimony involved the rise in crime and depressed ridership that comes from decriminalization of transit fare-jumping and experiments in “fare-free” transit.
  • Randal O’Toole, Director, The Thoreau Institute, a longtime critic of mass transit who advocates for massive reductions in federal spending on transit.

Normally, when a transit director or state DOT administrator testifies before Congress on transportation, their testimony is prepared by their national trade group (the American Public Transportation Association for transit, the American Association of State Highway And Transportation Officials for the state DOTs) and contains an update of the national scene and recommendations on national policy. But Pinkerton and Greenwood were there solely to testify on behalf of their own agencies.

So Pinkerton talked about regional transit corridors near Columbus and local workforce issues, while Greenwood talked bout how MARTA has focused on improving the quality and frequency of bus service. Regan’s started off defending transit in general (“the pandemic has not doomed public transit”) and the Biden Administration in particular (something to the effect that high gas prices are not Biden’s fault, it’s all the fault of evil corporations) before pivoting to the new IIJA legal protections for the safety of transit workers and the opportunities for retraining the diesel bus workforce for the electric bus age (helped by new IIJA workforce funding).

Shultz agreed with Regan about the need to protect transit workers, but in the context of the debate over fare-jumping and fare-free transit, which, she says, has increased violent crime in transit systems and thus increases the threat to transit workers. She also noted that permanent fare-free transit would result in fewer transit workers at rail stations.

O’Toole’s testimony centered on transit getting too much taxpayer money for the benefits it provides, and he argued that the environmental and economic development benefits of mass transit have been oversold. He did, however, make reference to the debate that Congress will have next year when the COVID money runs out and the big transit providers ask Congress for operating subsidies: “If transit must be subsidized, make the subsidies proportional to the fares collected by each transit agency. That will give the transit agencies powerful incentives to cater to fare-paying customers.”

Chairman Brown naturally asked Pinkerton about Columbus-specific issues – the proposed Intel microchip factory outside the city, to be precise. Pinkerton answered that she had just had discussions last week with Intel, and that multi-mode mobility and connectivity throughout that corridor are key to economic development. He also asked Regan if the IIJA workforce programs are a good match for the problem posed by electric buses needing far less maintenance than diesel buses, and Regan said that traditionally, less than one percent of transit funding went to frontline worker training, but under the IIJA it was going to be more like five percent.

As with other Senate Banking hearings on transit in recent years, participation on the Republican side of the aisle was marked by hostility from ranking minority member Pat Toomey (R-PA) and complete disinterest from the committee’s other Republicans, none of whom bothered to show up for the hearing.

Toomey and O’Toole backed each other’s statements on the excesses of transit COVID funding and the continued desire by transit agencies of new service ahead of paying down the state-of-good-repair backlog. Toomey also asked Schulz about the New York City MTA’s experience with decriminalized fare-jumping. Schulz responded that even with the un-jumpable turnstile gates in many MTA stations, fare evasion is still around 40 percent and she can only imagine what it would be in other areas.

(Ed. Note: It would have been interesting if more Republicans had shown up, because it would have been useful for someone to question TTD’s Regan about Schulz’s testimony on fare-jumping and fare-free transit. If one were to do a survey of TTD’s mass transit union members, it would probably show that transit workers have real concerns about the increased violence on rail transit and the increased number of homeless persons using transit for shelter that comes along with decriminalization of fare-jumping and outright fare-free transit. After all, they are the front-line workers who have to deal with these problems. But no one asked such questions at the hearing.)

Subcommittee chair Tina Smith (D-MN) asked Regan about the importance of the Buy America provisions in IIJA. Regan said that the new standards were (hopefully) strong enough for the U.S. to regain some of its lost market leadership in the rolling stock sector. He said that the prior method of determining Buy America compliance by the aggregate cost of the components that went into a car offered too many opportunities to manipulate the numbers and game the system.

Amazingly, both Senators Ossoff and Warnock showed up for the hearing and asked Greenwood about MARTA expansion in Clayton County, Georgia.

Bob Menendez (D-NJ) talked about how important the Gateway program of rail transit is to New Jersey, and then asked both Pinkerton and Greenwood to talk about the importance of the Capital Investment Grant (CIG) program to their agencies. Pinkerton said that her two pending “small start” CIG projects complement their regional plan for growth and connect to affordable housing. Greenwood responded that the IIJA has unlocked MARTA’s ability to move new CIG projects through the development pipeline.

And Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) talked about the need for Baltimore to revive its Red Line transit plan. He then asked Regan about the worker safety provisions of the bill, and Regan said that while some legal definitions still need to be changed, the bill does bring frontline workers into the safety planning process and give them a voice.

And, with that, the 90-minute hearing was over.



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