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January 23rd, 2009
THE DIG
On the Grid: Transit in the Stimulus Bill

Rick Karr, Blueprint America correspondent

Transit funding has taken a big hit in the House version of the stimulus bill, and yesterday some bloggers were speculating that it was because House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-MN) had rolled over and allowed the money to go to tax cuts instead. But the situation may not be as bad as it looks – yet.

Passenger rail funding went from $5 billion to $1 billion. Road-building and repair look set to receive $30 billion to transit’s $10 billion. And most worrying to transit advocates, a $2 billion subsidy to transit operating expenses (i.e. not capital construction, acquisition, or maintenance) has been completely eliminated. Those advocates say that’s a low blow, because transit agencies are staggering under the burdens of increased ridership (most passenger-trips cost more than they bring in at the fare box, which means each additional rider can actually increase an agency’s deficit). They warn that without the subsidy, transit agencies will have to cut service, lay off employees, or increase fares.

But those same transit advocates are optimistic that political wrangling in the House could restore a sizable chunk of the money that transit lost.

Here’s what happened, according to Blueprint America’s sources: Oberstar went into the negotiation process with high hopes for transit funding. But he met resistance from two places: First, Lawrence Summers, chair of President Obama’s National Economic Council, has been insisting that stimulus money go to “shovel-ready” projects. In the case of passenger rail money, the $1 billion that remains is apparently for Amtrak projects that are ready to go, while the remainder was slated for projects in their very early stages of development, like California’s high-speed rail line from the Bay Area to Los Angeles.

Second, the House leadership reportedly pressured Oberstar into taking the cuts in stride. Our sources say Oberstar bowed to the pressure because he’ll need the leadership’s support to move two big bills later this year – the transportation reauthorization and an increase in the Federal gasoline tax. Given both sources of resistance, Oberstar sat back while Rep. David Obey (D-WI), Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, gutted transit provisions in the bill.

Even if the bill passes as-is, transit advocates say there might be a silver lining for struggling transit agencies: A majority of the appropriation for roads can actually be reassigned to transit at a state’s discretion. That said, one source tells us that not many state Departments of Transportation are “quite that enlightened”.

More importantly, though, it’s not looking as though the bill will pass as-is. There are indications that the Senate isn’t happy with the cuts to transit and that the whole stimulus package could grow.

Finally, there could be a floor fight over the transit appropriation – especially the operating subsidy for transit agencies. There’s a rumor that Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) might take the matter to the floor. Sources tell us that depends on a few things: the political lay of the land in the House (and Senate); whether or not the American Public Transportation Association is willing to go to the mat to win back the subsidy; and whether or not transit agencies can add to the coalition – for example, by enlisting the support of the Congressional black and urban caucuses.

One bit of good news in the bill as it stands: Advocates for pedestrians and cyclists are apparently overjoyed with the appropriations for their projects, which are apparently the largest ever.

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