Jobs and economic growth. Federal spending. Climate change. The issues that drove the headlines in 2009 - all of which affected transportation policy this past year - will likely be the headlines again in 2010.
The year started off with the worst monthly job losses following last fall's worst financial collapse since the Great Depression. The crisis forced the new president and Congress to act, and they chose, against almost total Republican opposition, to pass a record spending bill. It was a package of relief to people who lost their jobs (in the form of unemployment insurance, food stamps, etc.); aid to states facing their own budget crises; middle-class tax cuts to help stimulate private spending and provide more relief for families; and infrastructure spending, including what amounted to an extra budget year of money for transit.
Although the stimulus program is working to some degree, the law continues to divide the country politically, mainly because of the deficits caused by unprecedented spending. However, the traditional infrastructure pieces of the bill continue to have bipartisan support. In fact, in several states and cities, voters enacted tax increases for transit and highway spending, even in these tough economic times.
Those against the bill are really against the spending, even though a majority of people in recent polls support a second stimulus that has more money for transit and highways. Look for this debate to continue, especially in the first half of 2010.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, climate change and energy legislation, and the health care debate dominated the rest of the news of 2009. In a way, all of these overshadowed the huge challenges that states and cities were facing, with all but two states (Alaska and North Dakota) dealing with deficits. APTA reported that nearly nine of every 10 transit systems either raised fares, cut service or did both to close budget gaps last year. According to reports by both the National Governors Association and the National League of Cities, that situation will continue even beyond 2010.
Authorization remains a political football
Because of the concerns about all of these other issues, both the Senate and the Obama administration do not want to address reauthorization of the federal surface transportation programs until the end of 2010 at the earliest. Congressman James Oberstar, the chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is demanding that something be done sooner. The Highway Trust Fund is now collecting only enough to fund the highway program for six to eight months at a time.
Unless enough consensus emerges to finally get a full, six-year bill, look for a series of short-term extensions - and more challenges - throughout 2010.
It's a bad situation that could become disastrous. Unless they specifically mandate differently, these extensions don't come with apportionments, meaning that the money doesn't get distributed in a timely, consistent way for transit agencies to count on it.
This month, APTA will launch a new communications campaign called "Tell Our Story." While it should contain all the good contributions public transportation makes toward all the above challenges - something that a broad measure of the public already knows - it must also tell people and their elected officials about the cliff the industry is coming toward.