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Edward Wytkind Headshot

Giving Up My Seat on the Bus

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In this time of economic crisis, when more people are trading in their monthly parking garage passes for subway tokens and bus fare, wouldn't it be a good idea to give transit agencies the flexibility to spend money on keeping systems operating and fares low?

We think so, but federal law currently places restrictions on how already allotted federal funding can be spent by these agencies, which is causing some to both curtail service and raise fares.

These agencies need a loosening of restrictions to keep systems both safe and affordable. And there is a piece of legislation rapidly gaining bipartisan support that could immediately help these mass transit agencies that are themselves being squeezed by tight budgets -- a bill that would not ask taxpayers for another dime.

Introduced three months ago, the Local Flexibility for Transit Assistance Act (H.R. 3200), authored by Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO) and Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-OH), would give transit systems some budgetary flexibility, but only during times of high unemployment and gas prices. This bill is exactly the shot in the arm transit authorities need to keep buses running as demand rises and budgets shrink.

Let's just say that again for clarity. This bill is not looking for extra financial assistance -- although we know that transit and highway programs are chronically under-funded. It would simply allow transit agencies to spend certain funds on operating expenses at a time when ridership is at its highest levels since the 1950s, which is straining those systems. It doesn't siphon dollars from the main transit capital program but it does let transit managers manage in a difficult budget environment. It makes no sense to flood transit systems with capital funds to buy shiny new buses when service is being slashed and the drivers needed to operate those buses are being laid-off.

Here's how it works. Currently, any public transportation agency in an area with a population of more than 200,000 can only use federal funds for capital costs while small- to medium-sized communities can flex some of the funds to pay for operating expenses. Carnahan-LaTourette would give temporary flexibility to the larger transit systems if the national average price of gas rose by 10 percent or more over the same quarter in the previous year. This relief is vital because fuel is one of the largest line items in a transit agency's budget. Flexibility would also be allowed if the unemployment rate rose above 7 percent. In other words, during tough economic times, this legislation would kick-in and help to stave off service and job cuts and fare increases.

Downsizing transit systems impacts more than just riders and the service providers; when transit services are cut employers of all sizes suffer as they need reliable transit systems for their commuting employees. Remember, 60 percent of transit trips occur during job commutes. Moreover, the ripple effect is felt throughout the economy as shopping malls, restaurants and other businesses suffer when transit services are reduced or eliminated.

Finally, the American people want more public transportation choices. Last year, 8 out of every 10 public transit ballot initiatives passed. Since 2000, the voters have said yes to more than 7 out of 10 transit-oriented ballot measures. The voters get it.

The Carnahan-LaTourette bill has attracted 140 cosponsors from both sides of the aisle and has the support of a majority of the members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee responsible for writing public transit legislation. Before Congress adjourned for the holidays, a Senate companion bill was introduced by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH). As both houses of Congress continue to debate the surface transportation reauthorization bill, which lays out U.S. spending and policy priorities for highways and transit, these bills illustrate the overwhelming bipartisan support for protecting transit services from draconian cuts at a time of rising demand.

Since the economic downturn started, more than 80 percent of U.S. transit systems have cut service, laid-off employees or raised fares. And this is happening as ridership continues to grow. The Local Flexibility for Transit Assistance Act offers a bipartisan alternative that saves jobs, preserves service and saves taxpayer dollars.

It's time for Congress to take up this bill and do the right thing for the millions of commuting Americans for whom that seat on the bus or train is an economic lifeline in their daily lives.