February 2011

Business must lead effort to argue for federal transit program

by Frank Di Giacomo, Publisher

In the very first week of the 112th Congress, the House voted to change the rules that have guaranteed the authorized levels of federal funding for public transportation and highways for more than a decade. This is only the first troubling sign that the new House leadership does not understand that the federal government has a role in transit investment and that this role is critical to building a needed industry in the U.S. for growing the economy into the 21st Century.

Because of this situation, business leaders must engage members of Congress — more than one-half of whom were not in Congress when the last authorization of these programs was passed, let alone when the guarantees were put in place. Business leaders are in a unique position to demonstrate, by their very existence, the connection between private sector jobs and the transit program.

Nothing to worry about?

There has been considerable testimony in congressional committee hearings that the funding guarantees have encouraged investment growth in private sector business. That's because private investor capital is attracted most to conditions in which investors can expect a likely return on investment. Businesses are also able to plan research and development in new technologies, if they have a pretty good idea what the market demand for them will be.

Some say that our industry has nothing to worry about, because the new House rule only prohibits spending money in the Highway Trust Fund and Mass Transit Account for anything other than transit and highways. Yet, that's just the problem, because these accounts are running shortfalls. Congress in recent years has had to transfer large amounts of money from general funds to ensure that highways and public transportation receive close to the funding guaranteed in transportation authorization bills. Because of fuel efficient cars and less driving in recent years, this funding shortage is going to get worse unless new dedicated revenues are enacted.

Neither the President nor Congress has displayed much support for new taxes, despite the fact that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been in favor of a gas tax increase. It and other business groups get it: Transportation investment should be one of the top priorities to get the economy moving again, and to make the U.S. economy competitive.

More than at any time in the past 20 years, business leaders need to be vocal about how the federal transit program keeps them in business. APTA's business members have created some great tools to help both suppliers and their customers contact members of Congress, hold events at their facilities and follow up afterward. Let's be sure that we use them to make more congressional contacts in the next 60 days.

 


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