Senate Transit Panel Looks to FTA Reauthorization

The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal mass transit policy, held a long-awaited hearing on February 25 to hear stakeholder perspectives on transit issues, as the committee prepares to draft a multi-year transit reauthorization bill.

Testimony was heard from the following (click their name to see their formal, written testimony):

  • Paul Skoutelas, President and CEO, American Public Transportation Association;
  • Patrick McKenna, President, American Association of State Highway Officials;
  • Scott Bogren, Executive Director, Community Transportation Association of America;
  • Ed Mortimer, Vice President, Transportation and Infrastructure for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; and
  • Larry Willis, President of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO.

The hearing was convened by Banking Committee chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID), who emphasized the dire revenue shortfall in the Mass Transit Account of the Highway Trust Fund and the need to craft a reauthorization proposal that works for East and West, urban and rural areas, etc. However, the fact that Crapo was the only Republican member of Banking to show up at the hearing served as an implicit reminder that transit is far more important to dense urban areas than to rural areas, and population density has somehow become a key determinant in the Red vs Blue political divide.

The first question of the hearing was chairman Crapo asking what could be done to increase transit penetration and efficacy in urban rural areas (of which there are a lot in Idaho).

Skoutelas emphasized that APTA members serve both urban and rural areas and that APTA’s reauthorization proposal called for doubling the size of the rural transit formula grant program. He also called for increasing spending on the bus and bus facility grant programs to 20 percent of total spending on new capital programs (see below). McKenna said that there are lots of rural transit providers in his home state of Missouri, and that rural access to transit can allow more elderly citizens (of which there are greater percentages in rural areas) to “age in place” at home. Bogren made the first of several pleas for Congress to consider the outcomes of transit first, not the methods to get to those outcomes, and that rural providers have always been “on-demand” so the current trend of on-demand service is not new to them.

The statements about the relative priority of bus funding deserve deeper explanation. Originally, the “section 3” discretionary grant program at UMTA/FTA was, indeed, split roughly 40% for new rail systems and extensions, 40% for upgrading existing rail systems (“railmod”), and 20 percent for buses and bus facilities. The 2005 SAFETEA-LU law split up section 3 and moved the “new start” program into its own account, funded by general revenues, whereas railmod and buses remained funded by the Highway Trust Fund as part of the Transit Formula Grants account. New Starts were renamed Capital Investment Grants (and now makes some previously railmod activities eliglble as “core capacity”) and railmod has been renamed State of Good Repair (which has a small high-intensity bus element), and then there are buses.

The following table shows the funding levels authorized by law in the last year of SAFETEA-LU (FY 2009), the three years worth of extensions, the two-year MAP-21 period (FY 2013-2014), its one-year extension, and the FAST Act period of FY 2016-2020:

FTA Capital Grant Programs – Levels Authorized by Law (Million $)
FY09 1,809.3 1,666.5 984.0 40.6% 37.4% 22.1%
FY10 2,000.0 1,666.5 984.0 43.0% 35.8% 21.2%
FY11 2,000.0 1,666.5 984.0 43.0% 35.8% 21.2%
FY12 1,955.0 1,666.5 984.0 42.4% 36.2% 21.4%
FY13 1,907.0 2,136.3 422.0 42.7% 47.8% 9.5%
FY14 1,907.0 2,165.9 427.8 42.4% 48.1% 9.5%
FY15 1,907.0 2,165.9 427.8 42.4% 48.1% 9.5%
FY16 2,301.8 2,507.0 695.8 41.8% 45.5% 12.6%
FY17 2,301.8 2,549.7 720.0 41.3% 45.8% 12.9%
FY18 2,301.8 2,593.7 747.0 40.8% 46.0% 13.2%
FY19 2,301.8 2,638.4 777.0 40.3% 46.1% 13.6%
FY20 2,301.8 2,683.8 808.7 39.7% 46.3% 14.0%

Congress did indeed drastically reduce bus funding in MAP-21, but it wasn’t because of any anti-bus animus. It was because the old SAFETEA-LU bus program was almost completely earmarked by Congress, some of it in the text of the SAFETEA-LU law and the rest for the Appropriations Committees to earmark in the annual appropriations bills. But Congress banned earmarks starting in FY 2011, and the thinking at the time was that if Congress couldn’t select projects, the Administration shouldn’t be given open-ended project selection opportunities, either.

Under FAST, some bus funding was restored, but starting in FY 2018, when the Budget Control Act spending caps were lifted and the Appropriations Committees were allowed to open the spending floodgates, the appropriators began adding general fund money to the bus money (and, to some extent, the SOGR program as well). In addition, the appropriators have always varied the CIG appropriation level as they see fit, so the actual spending levels for most years varies a bit from the level authorized by law:

FTA Capital Grant Programs – Actual Appropriations (Million $)
FY09 1,809.3 1,666.5 884.0 41.5% 38.2% 20.3%
FY10 2,000.0 1,663.0 982.0 43.1% 35.8% 21.1%
FY11 1,600.0 1,663.0 982.0 37.7% 39.2% 23.1%
FY12 1,955.0 1,666.5 984.0 42.4% 36.2% 21.4%
FY13 1,855.0 2,132.0 421.2 42.1% 48.4% 9.6%
FY14 1,942.9 2,165.9 427.8 42.8% 47.7% 9.4%
FY15 2,120.0 2,165.9 427.8 45.0% 45.9% 9.1%
FY16 2,177.0 2,507.0 695.8 40.5% 46.6% 12.9%
FY17 2,529.6 2,549.7 720.0 43.6% 44.0% 12.4%
FY18 2,650.0 2,993.7 1,147.0 39.0% 44.1% 16.9%
FY19 2,552.7 2,901.4 1,127.0 38.8% 44.1% 17.1%
FY20 1,978.0 2,683.8 1,221.7 33.6% 45.6% 20.8%

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), the ranking member of the committee, said that the Cleveland RTA has many aging transit vehicles, and asked what the impact of those would be. Skoutelas said the penalty for a fleet of aging vehicles is felt both in cost (which goes up), and reliability (which goes down), and likened it to a motorist trying to keep a 20-year-old car with a lot of miles running. (Brown also chose to pick a fight with Mortimer over the Chamber’s relative priorities of infrastructure spending versus tax cuts, to which Mortimer felt compelled to respond, etc. etc.)

Sen Bob Menendez (D-NJ) of course focused on the Gateway program of New York City and New Jersey rail projects, asking Mortimer if he felt that the Hudson River Tunnel was a project of national significance (Mortimer agreed) and then asked Skoutelas if APTA felt there was a national role in the project (answer: of course). He then asked Skoutelas to explain the importance of Menendez’s proposed change in law to specify that the face value of RRIF loans, if they are to be repaid with non-federal funds, should be considered part of the non-federal share for CIG projects, and Skoutelas strongly agreed with Menendez that RRIF and TIFIA loans should be considered local funding if repaid with local money.

Both Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Mark Warner (D-VA) asked about the DC Metro system (WMATA), which received $1.5 billion in special capital appropriations not available to any other transit agency, in ten equal installments authorized by the 2008 PRIIA law. The last installment of that payment has now been made, and the Trump Administration requested another $150 million in the 2021 budget, but then said that the presence of the money in the budget was not necessarily a commitment to another long-term deal for WMATA. Both Senators thanked the Administration for including the funding and expressed support for the MD-VA delegation bill (S. 1663) to  reauthorize another decade of such funding.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) asked about the intersection of mass transit and housing development (fitting, for the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee; harder to address for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee). McKenna acknowledged that both housing affordability and access to transit are problems, and often in the same areas (in Missouri, occurring the most in outer ring suburbs). Skoutelas added that Congress can do more to incentivize transit-oriented development and encouraging the next step, “transit-oriented communities.”

Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) went back to the issue of rural transit and noted that many rural governments are so cash-poor that they have difficulty coming up with the matching funds required by some federal grants. Bogren responded that some of his member agencies are so small, that the agency head also drives the bus and called for a lower matching share for projects designed to take rural patients to medical care. (He also talked about the need for more flexibility between capital and operating grants in rural areas.)

Skoutelas talked about job access through transit in rural areas, and also emphasized how supply chain jobs making mass transit equipment are broadly distributed throughout the U.S., not just in transit-intensive areas, which is a point that APTA has been at pains to make in order to broaden the pro-transit political coalition as much as possible. (Ed. Note: I get why APTA feels like they have to make this argument, but let’s remember that focusing on supply-chain jobs is how America got the most expensive and wasteful national defense procurement system known to man, where the Pentagon routinely pays tens of billions of dollars for overpriced weapons systems it doesn’t really need, based in large part on in whose state or district the factory was located.)

Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) picked up on that and praised the New Flyer bus production facility in Anniston, Alabama. He then pivoted to ask about the on-demand pilot project in Birmingham, partnering with Via for on-demand van service, and how that idea could be used for first-and-last-mile service and in rural areas. Bogren again talked about specific outcomes, saying that his members had one project in West Virginia that was specifically about using on-demand transit to take people to opioid recovery sessions, and another in Oklahoma specifically targeted to the foster care system.

Sen. Krysten Sinema (D-AZ) noted that a local streetcar project in Arizona had been built through a public-private partnership and asked what more could be done to encourage transit PPPs. Skoutelas responded that the CIG program is doing more and more of this, as local developers realize the benefits to be gained by funding transit access to their real estate projects, and that additional transit oriented development funding and encouragement could work as well.

Sinema also asked about the role of transit in getting people to health care, and Bogren said that CTAA had been having productive talks with the health care industry that had given them a greater understanding of how health care providers measures thing – the economic cost of no-shows, of ER re-admits, of  improper use of ambulances, and of timely discharge costs, all of which can be reduced by better use of mass transit transit. McKenna added that Congress could amend the section 5310 and 5311 grant programs and the and rural grant program to make them flexible enough to not restrict passengers by purpose of trip. Skoutelas added that more money for the overall transit program wouldn’t hurt, either.

At the end of the hearing, Brown asked whether or not the low-no emission bus program should be expanded as a percentage of the total bus program. Willis said yes, but that there were real training needs (they sometimes don’t operate quite like diesel buses), and that better transit procurement policy is needed for good U.S. jobs. Bogren also noted that most of the current electric buses are full-size and there are not many of the smaller buses that are used by rural and on-demand providers at present.

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