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September 22, 2008

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Clinton, Millar Testify on Transit and Energy Issues

The House Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee heard from public transit industry leaders and advocates at its Sept. 9 hearing on “Strengthening the Ability of Public Transportation to Reduce Our Dependence on Foreign Oil.” U.S. Sen. Robert Casey Jr. (D-PA) chaired the hearing in the absence of Chairman Christopher Dodd (D-CT).

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) testified in support of transit as “a win-win-win” for the environment, the economy, and the public. “We must take steps to ensure that our public transit systems keep pace with increased demand without sacrificing service or increasing fares,” she said.

Clinton recently introduced the Saving Energy Through Public Transportation Act of 2008 in the Senate. The legislation, which authorizes $1.7 billion for transit over two years, previously passed overwhelmingly in the House.

“Transit is the answer to a lot of problems,” she emphasized. “More and more service is being provided, but even more is needed. We have to make public transportation a public priority.”

Millar told the committee about the continuing trend of ridership growth for U.S. public transportation agencies, announcing a 5.2 percent increase in the second quarter of 2008. (See related story on page 3.) “Riders may have come to transit for the high gas prices, but they’re staying because transit is convenient and meets their needs,” he said.

He explained that—although transit use saves the nation 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline each year—systems face difficulties related to capacity problems and high fuel costs. He cited APTA’s recent fuel price survey, in which 35 percent of respondents reported either cutting passenger service or considering it. He asked Congress to provide financial assistance to public transportation agencies to help them avoid raising fares or eliminating service.

Dorothy Dugger, general manager of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District, noted that her agency operates only on electric power, so fossil fuel costs are not an issue. However, she added, BART is working to accommodate increased ridership by removing seats from some rail cars to make room for more standees.

Keith Parker, chief executive officer of the Charlotte Area Transit System in Charlotte, NC, presented examples of how the LYNX light rail line has improved the quality of life in nearby neighborhoods.

Dave Kilmer, general manager of the Red Rose Transit Authority in Lancaster, PA, noted that smaller public transit systems face problems similar to those in larger metropolitan areas. “Our primary concern is being able to replace older vehicles,” he said. “We also need facility improvements—our facilities are antiquated, not energy-efficient.”

Other witnesses on the panel included Andy Darrell, vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, and Robert Puentes, a Fellow with the Brookings Institution.

Members of the committee also commented on the importance of public transportation in helping Americans cope with high fuel costs.

“Public transportation can efficiently and effectively transport commuters to and from their destinations while using less fuel, creating less pollution, and taking a significant amount of stress—and congestion—off our roadways,” said Ranking Member Richard Shelby (R-AL).

“The cheapest gallon of gasoline is the one we never need to buy,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE).

“Mass transit plays an important part in America’s energy independence strategy,” said Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-NC). “Securing energy independence is critical to national security…It is important that America has an energy policy that is not dependent on Venezuela, Iran, or Russia.”

Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) noted that, while urban areas may have the highest concentration of public transit service, rural areas need to be included in any solution.

Three days after the hearing Clinton restated her support for transit and described her legislation at a press conference in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, with representatives of New York State public transit agencies and advocacy groups in attendance.

“Every day, more hardworking Americans are turning to our nation’s mass transit systems for relief from a slumping economy that has saddled them with skyrocketing gas and transportation costs,” Clinton said. “As the demand continues to rise, we must take steps to ensure that our mass transit infrastructure keeps pace with the increased ridership, so that we are not putting the burden on commuters and an already stretched system.”

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