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Pub Perspective: Consistent transit policy eludes administration

Posted on September 24, 2013 by Frank Di Giacomo, Publisher

Parts of the Obama Administration seem to ignore each other when it comes to actions that support greater investment in public transportation.

On overall funding and general rhetoric, there has been no greater friend of our industry than this administration. It has advocated for record amounts of funding and done everything possible despite an extremely divided Congress to ensure that the federal transit program stays alive.

Divided government

Yet the administration itself is sometimes its own divided government. Two recent examples stand out. First, the FTA simply refuses to back down or reconsider its unprecedented application of Buy America rules to utilities relocation. Whether or not you believe that this area of major projects should have been under the Buy America umbrella all along, it is clearly a new interpretation of these rules. The FTA says it is following new parts of MAP-21, but the Federal Highway Administration decided to issue a generous waiver. Clearly, the FTA could have found a way to do something similar.

The other example is how FTA and the Department of Labor (DOL) have been enforcing 13(c) labor protection rulings. States and cities are under pressure to reduce budgets in the wake of the recession, especially in how they fund future pension obligations, and they have made some reforms of their pension and retirement health care plans. Usually, these require workers to contribute more to their retirement. However, the administration says that some of these reforms violate labor protection laws and in some cases, most notably in California, the FTA and DOL held up grants. As a result, transportation systems across California and other states could have faced huge service cuts and the delay or cancellation of major capital projects.

Fortunately, a deal was reached in the 11th hour between the administration and the California officials, which suspended this decision pending the passage of new legislation in California that temporarily exempts public transit workers from the earlier law. It should have never gotten this far; almost $2 billion in projects were on the verge of being suspended, and other systems still face similar threats.

Actions contradict desire
The administration needs to understand that these and many other actions contradict the president’s repeatedly stated desire to see public transportation grow and be part of needed economic change in the U.S. We in the industry and through our associations need to get them to understand this current disconnect, and have a process to avoid them in the future. The only place that can happen is at the White House — because agency officials are not listening.

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