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Senate Transportation Bill Far From Transformative, Despite Soaring Gas Prices And Rising Transit Ridership

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Gas prices are up. More people are relying on mass transit instead of driving their own cars. But the transportation bill the Senate will consider on Tuesday does very little to help shift Americans away from their car-centric, gas-dependent lifestyles.

Instead, the Senate bill keeps federal funding heavily tilted toward building more highways and away from building more subways. Of the 18.4 cent per gallon federal gas tax, the biggest source of funding for transportation projects, the Senate bill sends 2.86 cents to public transportation -- the same as its current level.

For transportation advocates, who largely support the Senate transportation bill because it keeps current funding levels steady despite declining gas tax revenues, that is the bittersweet irony of the current political moment. Instead of calling for more of that much in-demand public transportation, the loudest voices in the room keep pushing for short-term or non-workable solutions like suspending the gas tax or drilling offshore.

"It is frustrating to see the half-measures, the purely symbolic steps, the ideological flag-waving that happens when we see these gas prices spike," said David Goldberg, communications director for the advocacy group Transportation for America. "It's like a small child being distracted by a shiny object -- the minute the immediate crisis fades, we forget about having a transportation policy that doesn't lean exclusively on driving everywhere for everything and burning petroleum."

The Senate bill is "a good bill, it's a solid step forward," Goldberg said. "It has the virtue in this current climate of having bipartisan support, and with luck it gets us through to a point in which the economic recovery allows us to be a little more visionary."

But it is far from a shift toward public transportation -- and in this respect, Washington seems to be trailing the nation. The American Public Transportation Association recently announced that public transportation ridership was up 2.3 percent in 2011 over 2010, to a total of 10.4 billion trips, the second highest annual ridership since 1957.

Looking just at December 2011, when gas prices began their most recent climb, and the increase is even more impressive, said Michael Melaniphy, the APTA president and CEO. Ridership was up 5.25 percent over the previous December.

"We're seeing a tremendous growth, and as those gas prices rise, we're seeing ridership is just skyrocketing," said Melaniphy.

Even the Senate bill is far preferable to transit advocates than the now-discarded GOP House transportation bill, which would have completely excluded public transportation from receiving funding from the gas tax. And while the bill would keep transit agencies afloat, the results for high-speed rail advocates are more dispiriting: President Barack Obama's plan for a widespread network of bullet trains is completely ignored.

One potential boon for transit agencies hit hard by declining state aid and the rising gas prices that they, too, have to pay in order to run buses: the Senate bill would let them use more federal funding for operating expenses. Traditionally, most federal aid for public transportation has gone to new capital expenses. Operating expenses, like paychecks for bus drivers, are left up to states or cities. So when localities cut budgets during times of fiscal duress, they can be left with garages full of shiny new buses without any people to drive them.

"It makes absolutely no sense," said Rep. Russ Carnahan, a Democrat from St. Louis who co-sponsored a House version of the proposal to let transit agencies dip into their capital funding to pay for operating expenses when times are tough.

If the Senate bill passes, the House may take it up instead of considering its own, stalled transportation bill. Passing the new transportation bill could enable local transit agencies to keep bus lines open even during the economic downturn.

Carnahan said it was a priority that colleagues on both sides of the aisle understand. His standalone bill was sponsored by Rep. Steven LaTourette, a Republican whose district lies outside Cleveland.

"Even many suburban Republican members have strong constituencies for supporting their local transit agencies," Carnahan said. "It's a very common sense way to help those local agencies keep service on the street at no additional cost."

Carnahan would not put odds on whether the House could pass the Senate bill before the current transportation bill expires on March 31. The alternative would be to extend the current transportation bill for a few months more, creating uncertainty for local transit agencies trying to plan ahead.

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