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The Source for Public Transportation News and Analysis December 16, 2011
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APTA Fights for Federal Investment in Public Transit
BY CHAD CHITWOOD, Program Manager-Communications

Throughout 2011, APTA and its members worked hard to increase federal investment in public transportation.

APTA’s legislative agenda focused on enactment of a multi-year, multimodal surface transportation authorization bill. The 2010 elections had brought a divided Congress that meant significant changes in Washington; however, APTA fought to make sure that the public transportation industry was front and center on the federal agenda.

To get the full picture of 2011, however, the lay of the land begins with the elections that brought a new majority to the House of Representatives and installed new rules and committee chairs. The election of a Republican majority in the House and a six-seat loss by Senate Democrats, who retained a 53-47 majority, set a new tone in both houses of Congress with much greater focus on spending reductions.

Between the 2010 elections and the start of the new year, Congress passed another appropriations Continuing Resolution (CR) and another extension of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act-A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) authorizing legislation, both of which extended existing law through March 4. The one bright note for transit advocates during the lame duck session was passage of the Middle Class Tax Relief Act, which extended through the end of 2011 an alternative fuel tax credit used by public transit systems and the transit commute benefit at the $230 monthly level.

The new Congress convened in January 2011 and APTA initiated a 100-day plan to help educate the more than 90 new members of the House on the benefits of, and need for, adequate investment in the nation’s surface transportation infrastructure. It was a focal point of APTA’s annual Legislative Conference in Washington, DC, in March, with APTA members making an unprecedented effort to visit all members of the new Congress.

In February, President Obama released a budget blueprint for Fiscal Year 2012, including a surface transportation authorization proposal that would dramatically increase federal funding for public transit programs to $22.4 billion and provide $8 billion for high-speed and intercity passenger rail. Also that month, APTA participated in meetings with Rep. John Mica (R-FL), the new chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (T&I).

In March, Congress passed, and the president signed, the seventh extension of SAFETEA-LU, continuing the federal transit program at FY 2010 levels for the balance of the fiscal year, through Sept. 30. Congress also passed several more appropriations CRs, finally passing a full FY 2011 omnibus appropriations bill in mid-April, which funded public transportation programs at $10.3 billion. This appropriations bill reduced funding for the New Starts program to $1.6 billion, a cut of $400 million, but it also maintained funding for the public transit formula programs funded from the Mass Transit Account of the Highway Trust Fund at the previous year’s level of $8.3 billion.

On a related topic, APTA and its members continued to advocate vigorously on issues related to a requirement in current law to implement positive train control (PTC) on the nation’s commuter railroads, explaining the need for federal funding to implement PTC systems that are as yet largely untested. In March, testifying before the House T&I Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials, APTA made a strong case for federal funding for PTC implementation, also noting the difficulties in obtaining radio spectrum and functioning technology in time to meet the law’s deadline.

APTA representatives also testified on authorization issues before the T&I Subcommittee on Highways and Transit and before the T&I Railroads Subcommittee on the need for increased federal funding.

In April, the House passed an FY 2012 budget resolution that would have restricted overall spending available to T&I for a new surface transportation authorization to funding levels that could be supported by Highway Trust Fund revenues, which are deposited into separate Mass Transit and Highway accounts.

The following month, the bipartisan leadership of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) issued a joint statement on a draft surface transportation authorization proposal to fund public transit and highway programs over six years at $339 billion, essentially the current funding level with modest inflationary increases. In June, EPW Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA) proposed an alternative two-year bill rather than fight funding constraints linked to a six-year bill.

Meanwhile, the House T&I Committee proposed the outline for a bill consistent with the House-passed budget resolution that prohibited any revenue increases, which would have required a cut of 30 to 35 percent in the federal public transit and highway program over the next six years.

June and July were long months in DC, with almost all the debate focused on raising the debt ceiling and reducing annual budget deficits. The debate ended with the creation of a Super Committee and a November deadline for legislative budget cuts. The Super Committee failed to meet its deadline and it is unclear if or when the “trigger cuts” will be implemented.

As discussions continued to evolve, Mica also announced that he had begun work on a six-year bill that would fund public transportation at or near current levels. A proposal to use oil fees was also being considered as part of the process of drafting this bill.

In September, Congress passed a six-month extension of the long-overdue surface transportation authorization bill, through March 31, 2012. This was a positive step forward and APTA continues to urge Congress to pass a well-funded, long-term authorization as quickly as possible.

A session at the 2011 APTA Annual Meeting & EXPO in New Orleans featured a panel of senior legislative staffers from the authorizing committees in Congress. APTA’s members used the opportunity to discuss what is happening on the ground with those who work with members of Congress on a daily basis on funding and regulatory issues.

Michael P. Melaniphy was unanimously elected as the new APTA president & CEO, effective Nov. 1. He quickly got up to speed on legislative issues in meetings with Mica, T&I Ranking Member Nick Rahall (D-WV), Highways and Transit Subcommittee Chairman James Duncan (R-TN) and Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-OR), and Tom Latham (R-IA), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies. Melaniphy also has met with Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), a member of the committee.

In addition to these Capitol Hill meetings, APTA staff held many meetings with major transportation coalition partners, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce-based Americans for Transportation Mobility, to ensure the continuation of advancing long-term authorization legislation.

November also saw the EPW Committee marking up the highway title of a surface transportation bill. Boxer has set passage of this bill as a top priority for the committee in the coming months. While progress has been made, passage of the bill before the end of the calendar year will not occur.

Finally, as Passenger Transport went to press, APTA continues to work with Congress on end-of-year tax extenders legislation, including the extension of the larger transit commuter tax benefit and extending the alternative fuels tax credits.

Looking ahead to 2012, the second session of the 112th Congress will reconvene in late January, pushing most major legislative work into February. APTA anticipates the House moving forward with its version of a surface transportation bill and expects to see a rail title coming out of the Senate Commerce Committee early in the year.

The current extension of SAFETEA-LU expires March 31, 2012, making it imperative for Congress to pass a long-term surface transportation authorization bill or else face a vote on a ninth extension.

Rob Healy and Joni Zielinski Carlton contributed to this story.

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