The new presidential administration and congressional leaders are so far saying all the right things. “I expect I’ll be seeing a lot of you folks,” Rep. Don Young, the new chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, recently told an American Public Transportation Association (APTA) delegation. Others have made similar noise.
All that is good news for the public transportation community. It should mean continued record levels of funding, for reasons we’ll get to in a moment.
Yet, that doesn’t mean the pressure is off. On the contrary, there are enormous opportunities for the industry that should encourage us all to keep the pressure on. Furthermore, recent history suggests how quickly our good fortune can change.
Political winds favor transit
To someone who hasn’t been around public transportation in the past few years, or who saw only the first few months after the mid-term congressional revolution in 1994, the inauguration of conservative Republican President George W. Bush and the retention of both chambers of Congress in Republicans’ hands might be viewed as disastrous to the industry and cause for panic. Nothing could be further from the truth, however.
First of all, W is not your dad’s social conservative (or his dad’s, for that matter). As he left office in Texas, spending on public transportation was on a steady climb throughout the state. Of large Texas cities, only Austin saw an ambitious transit proposal go down the drain, and many industry observers close to the situation there say the setback was probably because activists pushed the referendum on to the ballot too soon.
Indeed, more than his father, the second President Bush comes out of social conservatism that marries practical business and economic issues with social concerns: the heart of the “Compassionate Conservative” agenda. It mirrors the views of Paul Weyrich and Donald Lind of the Free Congress Foundation—the two who wrote some very important reports that conclude more, not less, transit support is needed. (A more in-depth study by them is due out later this year.)
A second factor favoring transit, and perhaps more important than the first, is the considerably more important role moderates have in this administration and Congress. House Speaker Dennis Hastert knows how fragile his majority is in Congress, and he will be reaching out to moderate Democrats much more to show that this Congress can get more done than the “impeachment” one.
Third, remember it was Republicans who were as much as or perhaps even more responsible for enacting record transit spending increases during the past several years. That was thanks to the pressure of pro-transit conservative governors like Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey—both of whom are now in W’s Cabinet. They and others argued that welfare reform, clean air concerns and other quality of life issues demand more transit investment.
Finally, his behavior in the first few days as president indicates that Bush himself is sympathetic to the industry. After all, he named Norm Mineta, one of the industry’s most consistent champions while he was in Congress, as his new secretary of transportation.
The time is ripe for action
Add to all that a looming energy crisis that began with gasoline prices and spread to the electricity and gas markets, and you have as many stars in alignment as the industry could ever hope for.
APTA and other advocacy groups cannot waste the moment. Reauthorization of the transit program must be moved to a very hot front burner. The coalition that brought us the successes of the past decade must be reassembled and strengthened.
Sound the battle cry. This time, though, it’s not for the defense. It should be a full-scale offensive for even more federal transit investment—which any great coach will tell you is the best defense, anyway.