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General Session with Members of Congress: The Funding Fight Isn't Over

At their Tuesday morning General Session, five members of Congress—one senator and four members of the House—thanked APTA for its help in passing a long-term surface transportation authorization bill, emphasized that the fight is not yet over and suggested various ways of funding increased levels of infrastructure investment.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), ranking member of the Senate Banking Committee, told the APTA audience, “We had a pretty good year for public transportation last year and you’re the reason. … You make a difference in people’s lives. You provide a service nobody else does.”

He continued, “Last year, we fought for a long-term surface transportation bill, for a fair share of funding for public transit, and we won those fights in large part because the Banking Committee convinced the whole caucus that there could be no deal without the continued pledge of transportation money. We needed the Mass Transit Account to stay solvent, but what we did doesn’t address long-term infrastructure challenges.”

Instead of increasing the gas tax, which Brown called “dead on arrival,” he suggested implementing a new international corporate tax system that would prevent businesses from sheltering profits offshore.

Brown recalled that between the end of World War II and the early 1980s, the U.S. had “an infrastructure that was the envy of the world. We created huge wealth in this country by investing in public works. … Today the U.S. is great at creating private wealth, not as good at creating public wealth for everybody.”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) said, “This is the first time in a decade we haven’t been faced with short-term insecurities and frustrations,” said “but we’re still in an area of uncertainty. In less than five years, we’ll be back for another bill and facing an even larger funding gap. … People need to know about the gap you’re going to be facing.”

Blumenauer, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, stressed that public transportation funding is “inadequate for our needs and still unsustainable,” but said APTA is working to “start fixing the unacceptable situation we’re in. [Congressional] staff and members need to know in pretty graphic terms where you’re at and what you need.”

He noted that the traditional connection between gallons of fuel and road use no longer applies and that “we have to replace the reliance on the fuel tax,” which has not increased since 1993 and “is going to become less and less sustainable.” For example, he said Oregon is undergoing a 10-year road user fee pilot project.

“New technological tools that determine how far people travel, not where they go, will help transform the transportation experience for Americans all across the country,” Blumenauer said. “By weaving together technologies, drivers can pay for their road use in sustainable fashion, get real-time traffic information and pay seamlessly, not just tolls and parking, but also transit—a universal system to make the transit system seamless.” Rather than simply designating major routes as toll roads, he suggested equipping vehicles with transponders that clock every mile the user travels.

“We need to take advantage of this year to inject, even in the current toxic political climate, things politicians can talk about that make a difference,” Blumenauer continued. “Building and rebuilding America brings people together; it isn’t partisan.” Repairing and replacing substandard infrastructure, he said, creates millions of family-wage jobs from coast to coast.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (T&I), also called on Congress to solve the funding shortfall, pointing out that deferred investment in public transit systems now totals $80 billion and does not include bridges, highways and other modes of transportation.

“We have to look for long-term solution,” he said, noting that numerous amendments on funding were proposed during consideration of the FAST Act but none was brought to a vote.

Echoing his fellow Oregonian Blumenauer, DeFazio spoke in favor of a charge for vehicle miles traveled instead of a per-gallon fuel tax or, alternatively, implementation of a tax on producers of barrels of oil that go toward taxable transportation purposes—an idea ­President Obama also approves.

“I challenge you, especially in smaller cities or rural areas, to show the residents that transit is not just a big city project. You could change some minds,” he said. “They say they want to get people off welfare, but if the people can’t get to work, what’s the choice?”

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), chairman of the T&I Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, recognized the full committee as “a great group of people … actually getting things done” at a time of widespread resistance to bipartisanship. He thanked APTA members for their support for the FAST Act, saying, “We couldn’t have gotten it done without your help.”

Denham also noted the shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund and the importance of finding a long-term solution rather than filling gaps in the short term. He suggested using voluntary repatriation of offshore profits to fund an infrastructure bank that would support projects throughout the nation.

“Bridges are unsafe and we can’t wait for a disaster to happen,” he said. “We want Amtrak to be sustainable and want money to go back into the infrastructure. These are big national policy issues—improving public transportation, funding, efficiencies—and an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to come together.”

He also talked about the importance of PTC implementation, streamlining federal environmental policies and the need to “get it done right” on high-speed rail, adding, “If we fail, that will set us back decades.”

Rep. Robert Dold (R-IL), a member of the Ways and Means Committee, called infrastructure investment an issue “near and dear to my heart” as a small business owner who operates a fleet of vehicles.

“I want to thank you for all that you do,” Dold told APTA. “Our infrastructure is absolutely vital: how we move people around, how we build our economy. … So many of my colleagues don’t understand mass transit, how important it is to grow our country.”

Agreeing with the other speakers, Dold said of the FAST Act: “Five years will go by in the blink of an eye. We don’t want more short-term bills. The longer we have to plan, the longer we can stretch those dollars."

Brown  Blumenauer
DeFazio Denham Dold

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