Last issue, I discussed the bus-related issues associated with the implementation of the new surface transportation authorization bill, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21). As much unfinished business as there is for bus operators and their suppliers, there may be even more for the rail side of the industry. And just as I pointed out for bus operators and suppliers, some of it needs to be addressed in upcoming regulations that will implement parts of the new law, while others will have to be fixed in the next bill.
Small starts and core capacity lack guidance
MAP-21 included major changes to important provisions that affect how rail programs are funded, but space here is limited to talking about only two of the important ones. First, the FTA’s new guidance on how it will evaluate New Starts and Small Starts policy changes have many project sponsors worried the ranges in the proposed ratings are unrealistic, at best, and puts smaller rail projects like streetcars at an unfair disadvantage. This is important since the bill did not segregate New Starts and Small Starts funding; all are now competing for money in the same bank account.
Second, a new category of eligible projects, called core capacity, squeezes the program’s funding even further. These projects are rightly justified to be included in the federal program to help agencies expand their overtaxed systems. However, Congress provided no additional money for a program that is expected to cost billions of dollars.
Lack of funding source remains biggest issue
This brings me to the ultimate issue. Once again, Congress kicked the can down the road in MAP-21 on additional funding for the Highway Trust Fund and Mass Transit Account. These trust funds are literally expected to run out of money in 2015 — the year after next. If our elected officials will respond to the investment requirements of a highly successful rebirth of public transportation, they need to decide how to pay for it. Fortunately, even a growing number of conservatives are in agreement and are looking for opportunities to address this issue in either a “grand bargain” on the long-term federal debt or in a major tax reform bill they want to do.
We need to give officials who support us some cover for some pretty tough calls they will have to make with their more conservative colleagues. We also need to call out the ones who don’t support us.