Originally posted on the NRDC Expert Blog.
Written by Deron Lovas
Given our nation’s urbanization, an overdue focus on racial inequality and the threat of climate change, our nation needs to invest much more in cleaner transportation options, especially public transportation.
While some in Congress recognize this necessity, news reports suggest a bipartisan infrastructure bill could do the opposite: secure hundreds of billions of dollars for highways while preparing for long-term transportation. cuts in finance.
This would be disastrous for our cities, for essential workers, for clean air – and for those, like me, who depend on public transportation to get to work every day.
People across the country rely on transit every day. In 2018 alone, we made nearly 10 billion trips by bus, train, or other mode of travel. And this way of getting around benefits us all, whether we live in cities, suburbs or rural areas. For example, while I bought a home a few blocks from a subway station served by WMATA in suburban Washington, more than half of the nation’s 2,200 transit agencies are located in rural areas. More than half of the riders use transportation because they need to (cars are very expensive to own and maintain!) or because they want to save money. This means that crossover is one of the best investments we make in stocks. And it’s not just economic justice – 60 percent of the riders are black, Indigenous or colored.
For these facts and more, check out these resources: here and here.
So what happened?
Over the past 40 years, federal highways and transit programs have both been licensed, as a result of a Reagan-era agreement that guaranteed transit at least 20% of the funding from gas tax increases starting in 1982. There’s an important benefit to this funding: Because gas tax revenues flow To the Highway Trust Fund, this funding – also referred to as the Contracting Authority – was deemed secured and not subject to reductions in the annual appropriations process. (Both Highways and Transit also get some funding from sources subject to credits, but the bulk of these programs come from the trust.)
Federal highway and transit programs need to be reauthorized by the end of September when the current law, the FAST Act, expires. Two Senate committees have already passed sections of the reauthorization bill to increase funding for their respective programs. But the Senate Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over transit, was unable to act due to the insistence of its leading member, Senator Pat Tomey (R-Pen), that transit funding should not be increased.
Adding to the complexity of the situation is the fact that the reauthorization of the FAST Act is being used as a basis for bipartisan infrastructure negotiations. President Biden and a group of 22 bipartisan senators agreed on a framework that would provide $579 billion in new spending for a range of infrastructure. To be clear: This new spending comes on top of “essential” spending, i.e. spending that would occur if the FAST Act was extended as is. (However, calculating this “baseline” is tricky and hard to say with certainty the numbers that negotiators are working with.)
In contrast to the baseline, the bipartisan framework announced by the White House is clear: It has earmarked $110 billion in new spending for highways and $48.5 billion for transit. To be commended, this is a huge investment in buses and trains that serve us all. However, these numbers leave out an important detail: what portion of the spending will come from the trust, and, therefore, will be guaranteed. Advocates have called for transit to be treated on a par with highways, given how important pollution reduction efforts are. While the highway-level investment in transit is warranted, at least 20% of the secured funding from the Highway Trust must go to transit. The INVEST law passed by the House meets that test, but the Senate rejects and the bipartisan agreement may be worse than the one in 1982.
This is ridiculous.
The amount of secured transit funding is important for two reasons:
- First, secured financing is more beneficial to transit agencies than unsecured financing; The guarantee allows them to plan and finance projects more cost effectively.
- Second, any funding guaranteed in this bill will become part of the baseline for the next bill. If the crossing is lost in this round of negotiations, the starting line for the next crossing will be further from where it should be.
It is credited that the Biden administration has set ambitious climate goals and has made racial equality a major goal. But we cannot achieve those goals without a greater commitment to transit. While it is true that the amount of additional investment in transit is historically large, there is less progress than meets the eye if the baseline is moved back. (Keep in mind that the framework also includes the largest highway investment in history, adding $110 billion on top of an existing highway program. Absent policies like those in the Investment Act, the spending will exacerbate pollution and exacerbate our climate crisis.)
Transit needs are well documented (eg, the American Society of Civil Engineers reports a transit backlog of $176 billion, which is expected to increase to more than $270 billion by the end of this decade). Those concerned with the climate crisis must do everything they can to boost cross-investment. Now is the time to take a leap forward by sticking with the bargain in force since 1982 and offering a boost to transit investment over it, and not taking a big step backwards.
Image courtesy of Juneau’s Capital Transit