Senators Discuss IIJA’s Impacts and Opportunities for Transit Investment, Safety, Emissions

The Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held a hearing this week with FTA Administrator Nuria Fernandez to discuss how additional funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act can improve public transportation service nationwide. 

The July 12 hearing was labeled “Advancing Public Transportation Under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.” It gave senators a chance to question Fernandez, the committee’s sole witness and head of the agency since June 2021, about the most pressing issues facing public transit agencies, including the challenge of restoring pre-COVID ridership levels while simultaneously assorted legacy issues like worker and passenger safety and crippling deferred maintenance backlogs. 

Fernandez expressed optimism that U.S. transit systems — even at just 60% of pre-pandemic ridership levels — have helped keep the country moving as COVID continues to disrupt daily life, and that passenger use will continue to climb gradually as infrastructure is bolstered by new investments from IIJA, pandemic relief and annual formula funds. 

“Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the core value of transit is unchanged,” she said.

Capital Investment Grants 

Several senators called attention to the IIJA’s five-year, $23 billion funding boost — $8 billion guaranteed and $15 billion in planned future appropriations — to USDOT’s Capital Investment Grants (CIG) program, which serves as the primary financing tool in local transit capital projects for new capacity in light rail, bus rapid transit, and other modes. Fernandez noted funds are roughly doubling over the next half-decade. 

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), chair of the committee, mentioned the role of CIG — specifically its Small Starts component — in helping to fund bus rapid transit projects in smaller cities like Cleveland and Columbus in his home state, while Sen. Bob Menendez highlighted it as an intended primary funding source in the much larger New York metro area, specifically for the Gateway Program between Newark and New York. 

Fernandez told senators the FTA has seen the pipeline of CIG-funded projects grow to more than 60 in total, with about half of those being recipients of Small Starts CIG grants that help fund design and construction for bus-rapid transit running in mixed traffic and with capital costs of less than $400 million. “We’re seeing more and more bus-rapid transit projects coming to the fold,” she said. Project sponsors in small and mid-sized cities had told her that obtaining a local match for these projects can be challenging, she said, so FTA will continue working with them to help identify matching fund sources.  

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) was critical of the IIJA’s provision of more CIG funds for mass transit during a time when ridership is down considerably, and called out FTA for allowing such grant applications to rely on pre-pandemic data. He also criticized the agency for making exceptions to language in the law requiring CIG applicants to show they are making progress on deferred maintenance backlogs, saying those exceptions are “making a mockery” of the process. Fernandez responded that the requirement to show progress on deferred maintenance is important, but the agency is also listening to public comments it received about that guidance and has decided to continue evaluating applications case by case. “One of the things that we do know is that for transit agencies, when they are applying for a Capital Investment Grant, we do a thorough review of their budgets, a thorough review of their capital programs, a thorough review of their ability to continue operating the systems that they have,” she said. 

Zero-emission bus system overhauls 

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) and several others pointed to the more than $5.5 billion ($1.1 billion annually) being made available over the next five years for the FTA’s Low or No Emission Vehicle program, which funds state and local purchases and leases of low- or zero-emission buses as part of a nationwide transit decarbonization push. Fernandez said jurisdictions looking to undertake such a transition and apply for funds can work with the FTA’s regional offices to develop a transition plan, and noted the agency has even developed a “roadmap” with six areas to address to help streamline grant applications. Jurisdictions should also take advantage of formula funding to transit agencies to decarbonize bus fleets, she said. 

Some senators noted that even with good intentions and planning, current supply chain challenges could hinder states’ and localities’ ability to implement electric bus fleets. Asked by Masto about future prospects for manufacturing capacity of vehicles themselves, as well as batteries that power them, Fernandez acknowledged challenges in production, but said manufacturers are stepping up and she expects an increase in the number of manufacturers working to produce electric buses in future years. She responded similarly when questioned by Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) about shortages of microchips for electric buses, saying the issue has “garnered high attention at DOT.” 

Improving safety 

Passenger safety is top of mind these days, particularly as it is reportedly further suppressing ridership alongside other factors such as working –from home and transit operator shortages.. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) cited an April letter from the FTA to Massachusetts Bay Transportation  Authority leadership in which the federal agency said it was “extremely concerned with the ongoing safety issues” for riders and would assume and boost safety oversight, including with added inspections. MBTA has been plagued by recent derailments, collisions, and crossing fatalities, including the April 10 death of a 39-year-old man who was dragged by a train he was exiting. Fernandez responded that the agency sent the letter because it was necessary to boost oversight of the MBTA in response to that string of incidents. Warren concurred, and was critical of MBTA’s reduction of passenger service following the FTA’s oversight notice, saying, “prioritizing safety or service should not be either-or, it should be both-and.” 

Still others, including Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), highlighted the need for improved transit worker safety. Van Hollen noted a provision he introduced that was adopted into the IIJA requiring transit agencies to establish safety committees — with equal representation of frontline workers and management, notably — that are tasked with identifying safety issues to improve upon and ways to mitigate those problems. The law set deadlines of July 31 for creating those committees, and Dec. 31 for them to issue safety plans. Fernandez said her “expectation is that all agencies are on track to get that up and running,” and that they should have enough time by the end of the year. 

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