Congressional aides reassured public transportation leaders that lawmakers remain committed to their interests, while warning that the Fiscal Year 2012 budget will be hard-fought and new funding sources are needed, at a March 14 “View from the Hill” session of the 2011 APTA Legislative Conference.
Mitch Warren, majority professional staff member for the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, noted that Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD) heads the committee following last year’s retirement of Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT), and that Johnson understands the importance of transportation to his constituents and America overall.
“You’ll continue to see the Banking Committee be very supportive of the transit industry,” Warren predicted. “There’s a whole list of senators on the committee who represent larger metropolitan areas that really depend on transit.”
Among population growth, an aging citizenry, and the ongoing volatility in energy prices, he said, it’s important that as many people as possible can access public transportation.
Lawmakers hope to include the Public Transportation Safety Act, which failed to pass the Senate last year, as part of a well-funded, long-term authorization bill, Warren said. But he cautioned that attempts to push proposed new spending through Congress will be very difficult.
“It’s critical to get out there and make the case to your members of Congress about the importance of transit,” he emphasized, noting that the House appropriations proposal includes significant cuts to public transportation. “Let’s help make sure the final product keeps those cuts to a minimum.”
Shannon Hines, minority senior professional staff member for the Banking Committee, agreed with Warren’s comments, saying that the ranking member, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), expects to cooperate closely with Johnson just as he has with past chairs.
“We’re very hopeful we will be able to complete a reauthorization bill—but, as we all know, there is a significant issue with regard to funding,” Hines said. “We’re going to be sitting still until we figure out how to move forward on the funding side as well as on the policy side.”
Hines expressed disappointment that the Obama administration proposed a surface transportation authorization bill but not a new revenue stream to support the significant increase in transportation funding. While Shelby doesn’t support a gas tax, she said, he wants to look at as many innovative options as possible, such as public-private partnerships.
“We recognize that public-private partnerships don’t work in all places,” Hines said. “Nothing should be off the table right now. Dollars are tight; it’s a tough economic climate. When everybody’s talking about cutting, we have to be willing to consider all the options to figure out how to make our dollars go further.”
Shelby does not view the proposed infrastructure bank as a panacea, especially given the trouble encountered by government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, she added.
Ward McCarragher, Democratic counsel for the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said the current authorization will be both different and harder than any other recent efforts.
He explained that the committee has never before faced the revenue question in the way it does in this bill. “It’s hard for people to understand how difficult it is even under current funding levels, let alone if you decrease them,” he noted.
As the authorization process moves forward, Republican and Democratic lawmakers have similar views on consolidating and eliminating programs while building in performance metrics and accountability for specific output goals. But the investment piece of the legislation is where the two parties almost completely diverge, he said.
McCarragher listed the three politically unpopular options facing Congress: to cut programs by 40 percent, transfer money from the general fund, or find a way to agree on new revenue sources. “That’s why this will be harder than other reauthorizations,” he said, adding that programs will run into cash flow issues by FY 2013 if nothing is resolved. “In some form, Congress is going to have to address the issues at some point in the next, probably, two to three years.”
Panelists at the March 14 “View from the Hill” session include, from left, Ward McCarragher, Shannon Hines, Mitch Warren, and moderator Christopher Boylan.