The wide-open highway has become something of a myth in many urban communities in the United States. Even with the strong growth in public transit ridership during the latter half of the 1990s, traffic congestion still remains a critical problem in many cities around the country.
According to a report by the Mineta Transportation Institute, transit’s overall market share has declined since the 1970s. The automobile remains the travel mode of choice, despite concerted efforts by the transit industry to persuade Americans to use public transportation.
Increased federal investment in public transportation over the past decade has helped to bolster ridership numbers. But more federal investment is needed to meet demands for public transportation. Which brings us to a discussion of the major piece of legislation that will guide federal investment in transportation for the next several years.
The reauthorization of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA 21) is scheduled for this year. Transit proponents are focusing on obtaining increased funding for new buses and railcars, infrastructure improvements, training, research and all the other good things leveraged by federal subsidies.
TEA 21 authorized $41 billion for public transportation, including $36 billion in guaranteed funding. Predictability and reliability of this funding has helped transit agencies attract local and state investment as well as public/private partnerships.
Transit advocates strongly support continued protection of funding guarantees and “firewalls” that ensure that Transportation Trust Fund monies are used for transportation purposes.
APTA urges 12% increases
The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) has laid out its recommendations to Congress for the reauthorization, which will provide a transportation spending plan for the six years beginning with FY 2004. The recommendations were the product of two years of work by the more than 100 members of APTA’s Reauthorization Task Force.
As you might expect, APTA would like Congress to build on the successes of TEA 21 and its predecessor, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA), by retaining guaranteed funding for the transit program. Moreover, APTA is lobbying for annual 12% increases in guaranteed funding, which would double the federal investment from $7.2 billion in FY 2003 to $14.3 billion in FY 2009.
APTA also makes other specific recommendations on policies and procedures that include expediting program delivery, improving the planning process, streamlining procurement and revising other federal programs.
Ridership gains are critical
At APTA’s annual meeting in Las Vegas this past September, Jenna Dorn, administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, was specific in framing her TEA 21 reauthorization objectives, which include convincing more Americans to forsake their cars for public transportation. “If most of America won’t ride a transit bus, we will not be able to sustain transit systems that meet community mobility needs,” she said.
Dorn is a strong believer in using ridership as an indicator of success and has suggested that transit properties that generate ridership gains as a result of federal investment should be rewarded. She would like to see commensurate ridership gains for increased federal investment. “I know you want Congress to double the financial resources for transit,” she said. “I would like to challenge us, in working together, to double transit ridership.”
Persuading more Americans to use public transportation is a wicked challenge. A reauthorization that mirrors and enhances the funding programs of TEA 21 would provide a solid platform for this transformation.