With the start of the new year and the shift in Congressional leadership, the transportation industry looks to see where it falls on Capitol Hill’s growing list of priorities. Congressman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) gives us a glimpse of those priorities in his discussion of battling funding cuts, working to secure transit and helping to reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuels with METRO Managing Editor Janna Starcic.
JANNA STARCIC: What do we need to do to get more money into the transit pipeline?
JIM OBERSTAR: As with every mode of transportation, the nation is significantly under-investing in the development, maintenance and operation of the public transportation network.
The reality is that investment has not kept pace with the growing usage demands on the highway and public transportation systems. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently found that to improve the conditions and performance of the nation’s surface transportation network, an additional $107 billion per year through 2015 would be needed. This presents a significant challenge for the nation as we develop options to close this funding gap.
One of the first objectives of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure under my chairmanship will be to begin an evaluation of the existing funding mechanisms for highway and transit programs. The present system based on the gas tax has some obvious flaws. The purchasing power of gas tax revenues has, over time, been eroded by inflation, while the cost of construction materials has also increased dramatically. At a minimum, we need to restore the purchasing power of existing revenues in the Highway Trust Fund.
The bottom line is that in enacting SAFETEA-LU, the last Congress lacked the political will to take the steps necessary to address the nation’s surface transportation infrastructure investment shortfall. Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) and I introduced a $375 billion proposal to provide the resources and the revenues necessary to begin to improve our nation’s surface transportation network. But the Administration and the leadership of the last Congress would not give that proposal a fair hearing. In the future, we cannot afford to back down, and we must make sure that there are adequate resources available to address the needs of our highway and public transportation systems.
Since 1982, highway and transit investment have grown together –– with Trust Fund revenues split roughly 80/20 between the modes. Maintaining this split is important to the development of an integrated intermodal surface transportation system. I have been a champion for transit receiving its fair share of Trust Fund revenues, and I will continue my leadership role in this regard.
What is Congress doing to ensure that transit receives its guaranteed funding level through SAFETEA-LU?
[In late January], the House considered legislation funding the Fiscal Year 2007 appropriation measures left unfinished by the last Congress, including transportation appropriations. This Continuing Resolution fully funds highway and transit programs at SAFETEA-LU guaranteed levels, but achieving this success was not easy, with many worthy programs competing for scarce funding. Appropriators had to make the best of a situation left unresolved by the last Congress.
SAFETEA-LU programs faced the threat of being frozen through the end of September at the level of the obligation limitations in the FY 2006 appropriation. Compared to SAFETEA-LU, a long-term continuing resolution that freezes funding at last year’s levels would have cut $4 billion from infrastructure investment in FY 2007, including $480 million from transit. This would have been the first time in 10 years that the highways and transit guarantees were not honored.
This outcome was unacceptable to me, and the entire committee united to fight the proposal. The committee worked together in a bipartisan fashion to emphasize to the Appropriations Committee and to the House leadership that the unique nature of SAFETEA-LU programs justifies unique treatment under the continuing resolution. I personally spoke with Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey on this issue and, at my request, all 75 members of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure joined together in sending a letter to the bipartisan leadership of the Appropriations Committee urging the FY 2007 SAFETEA-LU guaranteed funding levels to be honored.
While we were successful this year, we know that the challenges will increase as concerns with the Trust Fund revenues continue to grow. We will remain active and vigilant to ensure that future appropriations bills honor the funding guarantees for both highway and public transportation programs. [At press time, the House appropriated $8.975 billion for transit funding in FY 2007 — the funding level for public transportation authorized under SAFETEA-LU.]
What are you hearing from your local constituents in regard to any necessary improvements in public transportation?
My constituents share the same concerns that many transit users have throughout the nation. Of particular concern to residents of my district –– which includes exurban areas of the Twin Cities –– is the lack of a dedicated local funding source for the construction of transit systems.
I have supported the construction of the Northstar Corridor project that would extend 80 miles from the Twin Cities. Due to the lack of local funding resources, the project has been divided into two 40-mile phases. Even with the phasing of the project, adequate funding resources may not be sufficient to match the federal share of the cost of the project. Therefore, we must continue promote the significance of public transit to commuters across the country.
What can we expect Congress to do to help transit secure their systems against terrorism?
Transit systems around the U.S. provided 9.6 billion trips in 2004, an average of more than 26 million passenger trips per day. Yet, this year, the federal government will invest only $150 million in rail and transit security. This is unacceptable to me, and much more needs to be done to ensure the safety and security of the public transportation systems.
Since 9/11, I have worked to make certain that every mode of transportation receives the resources, guidance and support necessary to increase the safety and security of these systems. I am currently working with House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) to develop a proposal to increase the security of the nation’s rail and public transportation systems. While this proposal is still being developed, it will provide the capital and operational resources necessary to assist transit properties to begin addressing the serious security threats they face.
A recent APTA study suggests that public transportation usage reduces gas consumption by 1.4 billion gallons per year. What is your committee doing to further reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuels in general?
There is a very close connection between transportation policy and energy policy. As usage of our transportation network continues to grow, so does the amount of petroleum required to move of people and goods. Each year, the transportation sector consumes a larger share of the total fuel used in this country. Unfortunately, to date this has also meant a growing dependence on foreign oil. We have simply not done enough to be able to meet growing energy needs with new technologies and alternative fuels.
The 1.4 billion gallons of oil saved annually from transit usage is equivalent to 90% of the oil the U.S. imports each year from Kuwait. Greater investment in public transportation is one clear way to reduce fuel consumption and ease congestion on our roads. Over the last decade, the committee has passed several surface transportation bills that have significantly boosted federal investment in transit. The most recent reauthorization bill passed in 2005, SAFETEA-LU, provided $52.6 billion over six years. We must continue to focus on expanding and enhancing transit service not only to improve mobility but to achieve long-term economic vitality.
In his State of the Union address, President Bush didn’t mention public transportation. What is your committee doing to further the interests of public transit nationwide?
This reflects a problem the transportation community has faced for too long –– the American public has taken our transportation system for granted. There is a very limited understanding of the vision, leadership and effort that went into the development and construction of the system. This is particularly true for the critical role public transportation plays in the lives of most Americans.
For many people, public transportation provides the only means to access work, school or a doctor. For others, it provides an escape from the growing congestion facing many regions of the nation. Regardless, the benefits provided by these systems and services are little understood by the broader public, and the President missed an opportunity to link this important role with the Administration’s economic and environmental goals.
The decisions we make in the next reauthorization measure will be critical to sustained long-term development and success of the nation’s transit and highway systems, as well as our nation’s economic competitiveness, mobility and quality of life. Getting it done right will require a better understanding by the public of the importance of these systems to the nation. The President missed an opportunity to lead on this important issue.
How do you see the future of Amtrak and where do you stand on this issue?
We need to increase investment in our nation’s passenger rail system. Over the past 35 years combined, Amtrak has received less federal funding than we will spend on highways in just this fiscal year. The Federal government has established robust funding mechanisms for highways, aviation and mass transit, and Congress has always properly supported investment in these modes. But Amtrak is forced to beg for funding year after year, and rarely gets what it needs because of false expectations that it should be profitable.
Railroads throughout the world receive substantial government support to supplement the revenues paid by passengers. The U.S. has refused to do that, which is why we lag behind the rest of the world when it comes to passenger rail.
We need to stop nickel-and-diming Amtrak to death, and provide Amtrak with an adequate level of funding to address its needs. I intend to accomplish this in an Amtrak reauthorization bill. Amtrak’s authorization expired at the end of fiscal year 2002. Sen. Frank Lautenberg has introduced a bill in the Senate that would provide about $19 billion over the next six years for Amtrak and create a federal-state matching program to increase investment in passenger rail. It’s a good bill, and I intend to review it as I consider a reauthorization bill on the House side.
Despite the bombings in Madrid and London, the airlines have gotten the lion’s share of transit-related funding for security since 9/11. Do you see the need for greater financial support for enhanced security?
Yes. In the wake of the Madrid, London and Mumbai bombings, this Congress has a responsibility to the American people to assure the safety and security of our nation’s rail and transit systems. This year, the federal government will invest $4.7 billion in aviation security improvements, while spending only $150 million on rail and transit security, even though five times as many people take trains as planes every day.
Amtrak has requested over $100 million in security upgrades and nearly $600 million for fire and life-safety improvements to tunnels on the Northeast corridor in New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C. APTA has well-documented transit security needs that exceed $6 billion. I am working with Congressman Bennie Thompson, chair of the Committee on Homeland Security, on legislation that will address these needs.
Transit Legislative Outlook
By Edward J. Fishman and Dennis S. Potter
With the Democrats capturing control of the U.S. Congress for the first time in more than a decade, the 2007-08 legislative session on Capitol Hill could have a major impact on the public transit industry. The major legislative initiatives affecting the transit industry that are likely to emerge in the 110th Congress include a renewed focus on surface transportation security, the start of the next federal funding reauthorization process, heightened scrutiny of the nation’s energy policy and further discussion about the status of Amtrak.
The surface transportation security debate has started already in both the House and the Senate. Within hours of assuming his new role as chairman of the Senate Science, Commerce and Transportation Committee, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) introduced S. 184, the Surface Transportation and Rail Security Act of 2007 (also known as the “STARS Act”).
Seeking to build on the enactment of port security legislation in the last session, Inouye’s committee held its inaugural oversight hearing on the subject of rail and surface transportation security on Jan. 18. The Senate Banking Committee also has held hearings on transit security and is expected to introduce a companion bill to the STARS Act that will provide for approximately $3.5 billion in funding for transit security over three years.
The new chairman of the Homeland Security Committee in the House, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), has made it clear that mass transit security is one of his top legislative priorities and has announced plans to introduce a security bill in February or March.
The new chairman of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), has announced that oversight of SAFETEA-LU implementation and initiating the debate on the next highway and transit reauthorization legislation (which includes the FTA New Starts program) will be among the priorities of his subcommittee. The most immediate concern for the transit industry appears to have been alleviated as Congress moves toward funding federal transit programs for FY 2007 at the levels authorized under SAFETEA-LU.
With the impending depletion of the Highway Trust Fund, which some have predicted will occur as early as 2009, Congress is likely to pay close attention to the recommendations of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission (which may not be released until January 2008).
In addition to pushing for increased private contributions to public infrastructure projects, the commission is likely to recommend short- and long-term funding solutions that could have major implications on the structure of the next reauthorization legislation.
Democratic control of the Congress may have the greatest impact in the energy area. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the incoming chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has expressed serious concerns about climate change and may seek to introduce legislation patterned on the efforts of her home state of California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The anticipated Congressional scrutiny of the nation’s energy policy is likely to increase mandates for cleaning-burning fuels, more efficient engines and other initiatives that could have a tremendous impact on bus and rail transit operations.
Amtrak continues to enjoy strong bipartisan support, particularly in the Senate. Although there is likely to be continued debate in Congress over efforts to reduce Amtrak’s dependence on federal subsidies and shift more of the financial burden to the states, the prospects for significant Amtrak reform in the 110th Congress appear to be slim. Many Congressional members may be reluctant to push for substantial reductions in Amtrak’s long-distance routes in light of the uncertainty surrounding the next presidential election.
The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2007 (“PRIIA”), S. 294, was introduced and referred to the Senate Commerce Committee on Jan. 16 by Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Trent Lott (R-MS). A similar bill was approved by the Senate in 2005 by a vote of 93-6, but that legislation was not considered by the House. The current bill would provide for approximately $19.2 billion a year in funding toward Amtrak over the next six years, including a matching-fund program for states to finance up to 80% of the costs Amtrak capital improvements. House T&I Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) has expressed support for a one-time subsidy payment of up to $12 billion for Amtrak. The new House leadership has expressed willingness to open debate on the Lautenberg/Lott bill, but it remains unclear whether it will succeed in the current Congressional climate.
The Democratic majority in Congress is likely to focus significant attention on these and other issues of concern to the transit industry, through oversight hearings and proposed legislation. However, given the slim Democratic majority in the Senate and other sensitive issues on the national agenda, it remains to be seen whether significant legislative changes to the transit regulatory landscape will emerge in the next two years. Nonetheless, the debate over national transportation and energy policies is very likely to shape future legislative initiatives.
Edward J. Fishman is a Partner in the Transportation Group and Dennis S. Potter is a Legislative Consultant in the Public Policy Group of the K&L Gates law firm in Washington, D.C.