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Transit Operating Aid Bill Doesn’t Fly With Major Transit Lobby

A burgeoning congressional
to let urban transit agencies tap federal funds for operating
their systems is not sitting well with the transit industry's largest
D.C. lobbying group, the American Public Transportation Association

nyc_subway_mta_walder_transit.jpgA rail car
from New York City's transit authority, one of APTA's biggest members.
(Photo: TreeHugger)

Paul Dean, APTA's government relations director, told Streetsblog
Capitol Hill yesterday that legislation
permanently opening the cash-strapped highway trust fund to transit
operating budgets is "really not consistent with our position."

APTA, which has advocated for the
transit industry on the Hill for more than a century, wants to see the
highway trust fund remain a dedicated source of transit capital aid --
purchasing new equipment or maintaining existing infrastructure, for

The group continues to support
temporary federal operating aid during the recession, which has forced
many local rail and bus systems into layoffs, service cuts, and fare
hikes. Still, APTA's skepticism could be a major obstacle to passage of
the legislation setting up permanent operating assistance from
Washington, which is sponsored by Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO) and Sen.
Sherrod Brown (D-OH).

Dean noted that congressional budget
scoring treats a transit-capital dollar, which has a long-term impact on
the value of equipment, more favorably than a transit-operating dollar,
which tends to be spent immediately on employee salaries. Congressional
aides and lawmakers have told APTA that "they can give us a bigger,
better bill if funds are used primarily for capital," he said.

Dean also highlighted the importance of
ensuring dedicated financial support for transit from outside the
federal sphere.  "A lot of folks look at it as a zero-sum
game," he added, "that if you add a federal subsidy, that's going to
lead to state and local governments decreasing
their contribution, and you're going to be back in the same place you
were -- with less money
available to meet your capital needs."

APTA's stance leaves the transit
industry split on the operating-aid issue. A new lobbying coalition, the
Alliance for Transit Operating Assistance, reflects a collaboration
between the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Community Transportation
Association of America (CTAA), where rural transit agencies have
a strong voice

CTAA spokesman Scott Bogren told Streetsblog Capitol Hill that his
group continues to talk with APTA about finding common ground on
operating aid, adding that concerns about transit capital budgets are
shared across the board.

But Bogren described existing law, which allows cities with fewer
than 200,000 residents to spend federal money on transit operating, as
oftentimes incompatible with the daily reality of many growing urban

"There's got to be balance," he said. "That 200,000 population is
just a cliff that a system falls off." As the economy continues to flag,
he said the CTAA is making sure that lawmakers hear from "enough of the
mid-sized and smaller urban operators that are feeling some pain."

Conversely, Dean said that it is APTA's
biggest members, the transit networks with "dedicated
operating budgets and considerable state-of-good-repair needs," that are
most vocally opposed to permanent operating aid from the highway trust
fund. That description tracks with a statement that New York City's
Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) provided
Streetsblog New York during debate on last year's federal
stimulus law.

In its response last year, the MTA said
its top priority was seeking reliable funding from the state, not the
federal government, and pointed out that its annual capital aid "from
Washington has gone up from about $200 million
to about $1.5 billion today."

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