Support for House Transportation Bill Eroding

Committee threatens future of transit's dedicated funding stream.
by | February 2, 2012 AT 8:40 PM

(Updated: 9:44 a.m.)

Earlier this week, the House introduced its long-awaited highway and transit bill in a move that transportation advocates generally cheered.

The five-year, $260 billion piece of legislation provides level funding – a vast improvement over the big cuts proposed in an earlier version – and it quickly got the hearings it needs to progress.

Meanwhile, the Senate version of the legislation -- a smaller two-year bill -- is moving along as well. It seemed like perhaps the federal government might be on its way towards passing its first surface transportation authorization in more than six years.

What a difference a day makes.

In the opening moments of Thursday's markup of the bill by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, ranking member Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.V.) forced members to make an embarrassing admission when he inquired whether any of them had actually read the legislation they were about to discuss. "I don't see a single hand raised," he concluded.

In the afternoon, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood generated buzz when he told Politico that the legislation was "the worst transportation bill" he'd seen in decades and "the most partisan transportation bill" he had ever seen. The committee approved the legislation in the early hours of Friday morning.

Members of the transit community, who had thrown their support behind the legislation just days earlier, started questioning the bill Thursday. Once news started making the rounds that the House Ways and Means Committee -- charged with finding the money for the transportation bill -- was planning to dramatically change the way the federal government funds transit, their support quickly vanished.

The committee's plan was released Thursday morning, just one day before it was set to mark up its part of the legislation.

As it stands now, the federal government primarily funds its transportation expenditures via the Highway Trust Fund, which itself is primarily funded by fuel taxes. But a portion of each fuel tax is designated to a special account within the trust fund for transit. The gasoline tax, for example, is about 18.4 cents per gallon, and about 2.83 cents goes to transit.

The feds supplement that dedicated funding stream with other sources of money. Together, it comes out to about $10.5 billion annually for transit.

The Ways and Means Committee plan would take the transit account's funds, transfer them to the highways account, replace it with a one-time $40 billion allocation, and prevent future fuel taxes from going toward the transit account.

Transit advocates fear that, under the plan, highways are being prioritized due to their access to the the more steady and stable dedicated funding stream. Meanwhile, transit's money could be subject to the whims of future legislatures. That could be bad news for transit, given the ongoing focus on spending cuts.

A broad group of stakeholders expressing opposition to the plan sent a letter to the Ways and Means Committee Thursday. It was signed by hundreds, including officials with the American Planning Association, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties and  the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, and a handful of mayors also signed on.

In a statement Thursday, the American Public Transportation Association said the plan would divert $25 billion from transit and "undo nearly 30 years of overwhelming bipartisan support for dedicated federal investment in public transit."

Even the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials was critical of the committee. On Thursday, it sent a letter to the committee expressing support for the current system. "We believe that the two complementary accounts need to be maintained in order to support a well-funded, multi-modal transportation system," the group wrote in its the letter.

That support is being viewed as especially significant. AASHTO is one of the largest stakeholders in the debate, and it's thrown its clout behind transit, even though it's not typically a transit advocate.

(Governing asked AASHTO for a copy of the letter, but the organization hasn't produced it. Transportation for America and the Natural Resources Defense Council, however, have both posted parts of it online.)

Joshua Schank, head of the transportation think tank Eno Transportation Foundation, says the House legislation was already going to have huge hurdles -- namely, its controversial provisions to fund transportation with oil and gas royalties, and Republican leaderships' plan to attach a controversial approval of the Keystone Pipeline to the bill.

Now, the threats to transit might be politically unpalatable to even conservative legislators from urban states whose residents appreciate transit, Schank says.