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As Minneapolis Joins NACTO, Oberstar Backs Shift on Transit Operating Aid

At an event in Minneapolis yesterday, House transportation committee
chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) announced his support for giving urban
transit agencies more flexibility to spend federal transportation
formula money on
operating
-- a change in the current law that has already
won
the backing of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood but has
split
the transit industry.

transit_oberstar_3_30_10.jpgOberstar
(center) joined New York City transport chief Janette Sadik-Khan (right)
at today's event. (Photo: B.Clements, Finance
& Commerce
)

Oberstar appeared at an
event marking
Minneapolis' move to join the National Association of
City Transportation Officials (NACTO),
founded 14 years ago by then-New York City Transportation Commissioner
Elliot Sander to counterbalance the influence of state DOTs'  voice in
D.C., the American Association of State Highway and Transportation
Officials.

Oberstar's specific remarks on transit operating aid were
unavailable as of press time. But transport committee spokesman Jim
Berard said the Minnesotan supported "in principle" the conept of
allowing transit agencies from areas with populations greater than
200,000 to use their federal transportation formula grants on operating
expenses.

Under current law, urban transit agencies are restricted to
spending federal formula money on capital expenses, such as purchasing
new rail cars or laying track for an expanded line.

Congress agreed
last year
to give transit officials the freedom to redirect 10
percent of their federal stimulus aid to operating budgets, underscoring
that the change was a temporary response to the recession.

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the transit
industry's chief lobbying group for more than a century, has opposed
the use of formula grants for transit operating, preferring that
already-scarce highway trust fund dollars be reserved for capital
spending on rail and buses. APTA did not return a request for comment by
press time on the growing support for changing the existing rules
governing transit operating funds.

It's worth noting that the change Oberstar and LaHood have endorsed
would not come until lawmakers take up a new long-term federal
transportation bill, which may not occur until next year. Also left
undetermined is the share of formula funds that would be made available
for transit operating costs if the proposal becomes law; legislation offered
by
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO) would
okay the use of between 30 percent and one-half of federal formula
grants.

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