Report bemoans ‘fractured’ national effort on transit
By Burgess Everett
Local governments and employers are doing their share to boost public transportation’s interests, and now it’s up to Washington and national corporations to step up, the advocacy group Good Jobs First said in a report Wednesday.
“Bosses for Buses” illustrates a landscape where time and again, communities have voted to improve transit — even by raising taxes — while federal resources and companies’ national advocacy efforts are fragmented.
“Outside the Beltway, we see this very strong support for transit,” said lead author Greg LeRoy. “But on the Hill and here inside the Beltway, for three different episodes we’ve seen a very fractured corporate voice on transit and a lot less positive outcomes than on the local level.”
Those key episodes were the continuing struggle for transit tax benefits to be made permanently equal with parking, last year’s surface transportation bill and the stimulus.
One example LeRoy cites: In 2009, the two main transit unions and groups like the Transportation Equity Network pushed hard for more federal stimulus money for transit systems that were being forced to raise fares and reduce service amid budget cuts. But the American Public Transportation Association and big-city transit agencies didn’t join the effort, and $2 billion for operating expenses in the stimulus was “famously deleted by then-White House Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers,” the report says.
APTA lobbyist Rob Healy told POLITICO that his group has consistently fought for operating flexibility for transit systems, including supporting a 2010 bill that would have provided $2 billion in emergency operating funds. But he said providing too much federal support for operations might eventually cause states to turn their backs on public transportation, and APTA wanted to make sure local government kept a stake in the game.
“There was some disagreement with the unions,” he said, adding that “we thought that broad flexibility on operating assistance should be temporary.”
Good Jobs First’s larger point is the lack of coordination nationally among transit riders, operators and companies that benefit from the networks. That means no active national campaigns are pushing to increase transit’s share of federal gas tax revenue and maintain parity between parking and transit tax benefits beyond the end of the year, the report says.
Local bright spots include Cleveland, where two hospitals embraced one of the nation’s best examples of true bus rapid transit, eventually paying more than $6 million for naming rights. Business leaders in Phoenix created “Friends of Transit,” which joined with the local Chamber of Commerce to push for a self-taxation scheme that has birthed a busy light-rail line in the famously car-centric city.
Closer to D.C., the report lauds the effort to build a rail “Purple Line” link between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties after passage of a massive transportation funding bill in Maryland.
But each transit agency has different needs, which makes creating national momentum more difficult. Some networks need to grow to accommodate growing or shifting populations while others face a yearly fight to preserve existing service. Regions differ in their prefered tax structures, and some employment centers are built in a sprawling manner that makes centralized transit service a struggle.
“The thing that unites most of the local coalitions for transit is that most of the employers are dependent on transit for their workforce,” LeRoy said. “At the national level, it’s more often true that the companies involved are the companies that make their business on transit.”
Still, the national level has some success stories. Transit advocates in Congress defeated a House GOP-led effort to sever federal public transportation funding from the gas tax in 2012, and transit riders got a stocking stuffer when the fiscal cliff deal offered a two-year extension of the transit tax benefit.
The recent establishment of a public transportation caucus by Reps. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) and Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) also indicates support for a cohesive direction in Congress on public transportation policy. But LeRoy wasn’t sure about how to create a truly national advocacy campaign.
“We don’t have a specific canned answer to that,” he said.
This story originally appeared in Politico on May 29, 2013 and is available here: https://www.politicopro.com/