Public transportation has been shaped repeatedly by public acts. Many of these were laws enacted by Congress with the intent of fostering the industry. But many also inhibited it, some by fulfilling the law of unintended consequences.
1. Federal Highway Act of 1921. The Roaring Twenties brought unprecedented prosperity, which, with Henry Ford’s breakthroughs, also brought about rapid increases in private car ownership. This put pressure on Congress to do something about the lack of good roads. While people began to get their kicks on Route 66 and other new highways as a result, the nation’s first federal road-building program since the Jefferson administration’s National Road also began a widening gap between public transport and road subsidies.
2. Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935. While this law was created to break up the concentration of monopoly power over electricity and gas delivery, its unintended consequences forced utilities to divest their cross-subsidized electric streetcar services. By 1950, virtually all street railways left were on their own and struggling.
3. Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964. For nearly 30 years, New Deal and progressive legislation doled out federal assistance to the industry in the form of bailouts and loans. This law took the help to another level, by establishing the Urban Mass Transportation Administration within the Department of Housing and Urban Development (now the Federal Transit Administration within the U.S. Department of Transportation). Considered the industry’s seminal federal assistance and oversight legislation, it authorized $375 million in matching funds (a 50:50 match considered too much by some).
4. National Environmental Policy Act of 1970. This landmark legislation required environmental impact review for all major public works, including highways and transit.
5. Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1973. In this energy crisis year, Congress authorized trade-in of controversial urban interstate highway segments to fund substitute transit projects (expanded to include highway projects in 1976). The act also for the first time allowed urban highway funds to be used for mass transit, and increased eligibility of bicycle and pedestrian facilities in the program, ideas which paved the way (excuse the pun) for today’s flexible-funding concept. In 1973, gasoline was in short supply for the first time since World War II; Americans began to rethink transportation priorities.
6. National Mass Transportation Assistance Act of 1974. Also in response to the energy crisis and to help stimulate urban development, Congress enacted the first federal public transportation operating assistance legislation, beginning a nearly 20-year trend to help larger systems’ operations, and for smaller systems, continues today.
7. Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1983. Enacted under President Reagan as a “jobs bill,” public transportation got its first dedicated source of federal revenue created by dedicating one cent of the federal gas tax for capital rail and bus projects, which Reagan sold as a “user fee” (are you listening President Bush?).
8. Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Taking regulations of a 1973 law to new levels, the ADA mandated that virtually all public transportation service required be accessible to disabled. Its “complementary paratransit” provisions dramatically expanded such services, resulting in significant expansions of privately contracted bus service.
9. Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991. This landmark legislation was the first general authorization of use of highway funds for public transportation and committed the government to consider transit on a level playing field with highways in planning stages.
10. Transportation Equity Act of the 21st Century. TEA 21 dramatically increased federal investment and other things mentioned last time, but it also created guaranteed funding. This year’s reauthorization will be a difficult encore.