As I mentioned in our last issue, both the Senate and the Obama administration would rather pass an 18-month extension to the current federal surface transportation law and address reauthorization of its programs at the end of this year at the earliest.
However, Congressman James Oberstar (D-Minn), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is demanding that something be done earlier. The Highway Trust Fund is now collecting only enough money to fund the highway program for six months to eight months at a time, so Congress has been settling for extensions of a few months at a time.
The result is a stand-off, and the stalemate is slowly killing the public transportation industry. It means that long-term investments, such as those for new bus and railcar orders, new rail and BRT lines, and maintenance facilities, get put on hold until a multi-year law gets passed.
We have seen this movie before. The last time that a new authorization bill was passed, we saw more than two years of very short extensions. Several leaders of the industry's supply side said it was one of the major factors contributing to a near depression - a 40 percent drop in business by one count - in the industry; the other major factor was a cutback in state and local transit spending. Some shifted their business abroad - including U.S. companies.
Of course, cities and states are in even worse shape now than they were then. Transit agencies are being hit even harder as a result. Nine out of ten are either cutting service, laying people off, raising fares or all of the above. Before implementing any of the aforementioned measures, of course, most systems are canceling or delaying capital procurements.
Both business leaders and transit agency heads say that if this situation continues, it will be very difficult for the industry to return to the pre-recession days. That's because the public will have simply lost faith that systems can be saved the way they are, or because many of the suppliers will go away. So much for this part of the "new green economy" that President Obama wants.
Action requires passion
As I also pointed out last month, the American Public Transportation Association's (APTA) new communications campaign has begun to "Tell Our Story" to members of Congress, the media and the general public. While the stories of how the industry can contribute to green jobs - and the economic cliff the industry is fast approaching - these stories must now come with urgent calls to stop playing politics.
We are now past stories. The APTA Business Members are organizing a series of urgent calls and visits to members of Congress in the next few weeks. How Congress and the administration respond to these demands of a lengthier extension or a full six-year renewal of federal law may determine the future of the industry as we know it.