Public Transit Keeps Stumbling in Congress Despite Major Needs

Stacy Kaper

The number of miles drivers log on the road has declined over the last decade and continues to drop. Additional highway lanes in cities nationwide have failed to fix congestion problems. Evidence is mounting that public transit can boost economic growth and relieve population pressures.

Yet many transportation experts complain that federal policies in Congress, which in turn drive policies in states and cities, continue to favor building highways, and that public transit is as beleaguered as ever.

These policies, they say, are carried by powerful, well-established interests that back road-building over alternative transportation modes such as light rail, commuter buses and shuttles, bike paths, and pedestrian walkways.

“Starting in the mid-’90s, we started to see a structural shift in what the market wants. Unfortunately, how we fund the infrastructure system, the subsidies, the land-use laws—everything is geared to just delivering drivable suburban. The cards are stacked,” said Christopher Leinberger, a visiting fellow with the Brookings Institution.

“It’s because we have been subsidizing huge industries. You’ve got all the road builders, you’ve got the National Association of Realtors, the homebuilders, the office- and business-park people, and they all like their subsidies,” he said. “They fight back.”

Public-transit systems—which are often viewed as a public service, providing a low-cost way to get people to work, school, and essential services like grocery shopping—often have a substantial chunk of their capital costs subsidized by the federal government.

But this model comes under scrutiny when budgets are tight. Because transit systems often charge rates that are barely high enough to cover operating costs, the subsidies can be a sore spot for fiscal hawks, particularly amid the influx of tea-party members in the House, who want to shrink the federal government and rein in spending.

“One of the big challenges is just the kind of political inertia or a sense that entrenched interests continue to do things the way they always have done things,” said Phineas Baxandall, a senior analyst with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

U.S. PIRG released a study recently showing that the trend of falling driving mileage is continuing as baby boomers shift into retirement and driving-averse millennials, who rely more heavily on public transportation than their parents did, swell the workforce.

Transit systems tend to proliferate in larger urban areas, are often relied upon by poorer and working-class passengers, are expensive to develop, and often do not break even, much less turn a profit.

Unsurprisingly, many of the political fault lines break down between Republicans and Democrats, and rural versus urban lawmakers, meaning transit supporters are outnumbered in the House.

Last year, under then-Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., House Republicans attempted to push a surface-transportation bill that would have stripped out dedicated funding for mass transit. The bill came under attack and failed to make its way out of the House, but it illustrated the pressure conservatives are under to find ways to slash spending.

Democrats credit current Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., with making transportation—including mass transit—a priority, but he hopes to streamline and eliminate some transit programs in the next transportation bill.

“Transit plays an important role in urban, suburban, and rural communities across the nation,” he said, adding that priorities for the highway bill will focus on “federal transit policies and programs to make the most effective and efficient use of taxpayer dollars.”

Federal funding for mass transit remains in serious jeopardy. Under a Reagan-era policy, roughly 20 percent of a gas tax that funds the Highway Trust Fund is dedicated to mass transit, providing resources for capital investments.

But that fund—which mostly goes to highways, roads, and bridges—is facing a severe shortfall, as drivers continue driving less and shift to more fuel-efficient vehicles. The Highway Trust Fund is on track to go into the red in fiscal 2015, spelling problems for all surface-transportation investments. And mass transit is perhaps the most vulnerable.

“The biggest problem transit has is, its costs are out of control,” said Wendell Cox, visiting fellow with the Heritage Foundation. “One of the big problems, and one of my great frustrations, has been that the answer to every question in transit is more funding.”

Congress is unlikely to tackle the issue until it takes up the surface-transportation reauthorization, which expires at the end of next year.

“Now they are on a track to strangle [transit] to death, just a little bit more slowly than what they actually proposed previously,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Highways and Transit Subcommittee.

“If you look at what’s going to happen to the trust fund and what’s proposed in the Ryan budget, given the realities of the trust fund, transit would go to near zero in the year 2015. I can’t even envision how catastrophic that would be.”