Declaring War on Public Transportation

Thirty years ago America was mired in a recession. Oil prices were high. The nation’s highways and transit systems were falling apart. Divided government was the name of the game, with Republicans controlling one branch of government and Democrats another.

After signing a new, badly needed transportation law, the president stated:

Today, as this bill becomes law, America ends a period of decline in her vast and world-famous transportation system. Because of the prompt and bipartisan action of Congress, we can now ensure for our children a special part of their heritage -- a network of highways and mass transit that has enabled our commerce to thrive, our country to grow, and our people to roam freely and easily to every corner of our land…

Common sense tells us that it will cost a lot less to keep the system we have in good repair than to let it disintegrate and have to start over from scratch. Clearly this program is an investment in tomorrow that we must make today…

When we first built our highways, we paid for them with a gas tax, a highway user fee that charged those of us who benefited most from the system. It was a fair concept then, and it is today. But that levy has not been increased in more than 23 years. And it no longer covers expenses. The money for today's improvements will come from increasing the gas tax, or the highway user fee, by the equivalent of a nickel a gallon -- about $30 a year for most motorists.

While the action we take today will bring some relief to those of us who so want to work and yet cannot find jobs, its principal benefit will be to ensure that our roads and transit systems are safe, efficient, and in good repair. The state of our transportation system affects our commerce, our economy, and our future…”

Among other advances, the bill back then included a mass transit account which received dedicated support from the highway trust fund. Specifically, one out of five cents of the new user fee went to benefit public transportation such as commuter rail and bus systems. This helped to bolster underfunded transit systems, as President Reagan said, and also helped to build political support for the bill among Democrats in Congress.

Now, consider what is going on today. Working our way back from a crippling recession, one exacerbated by record high oil prices, in a political environment marked by a divided government. But this time around House Republican leaders are showing much more partisan, political colors. They’ve taken up the worst transportation bill ever, riddled with extreme proposals that would harm our neighborhoods and environment, and decided for the first time ever to fuel it with speculative revenue from new drilling offshore, onshore and in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge.

Many of us who have been involved with transportation for awhile are asking ourselves, “Why torpedo a bill with partisanship and a disingenuous plan to fill a funding gap of tens-of-billions of dollars with revenue that’s unlikely to come in anytime soon and generate just a fraction of the revenues needed?” As if the “drill and drive” scheme weren’t bad enough, tomorrow the House Ways and Means Committee will make things worse by proposing to rob the mass transit account to pay for more highways.

By essentially waging war on public transportation, House Republicans are bent on scuttling the 30-year old deal forged by President Reagan. Their bill would take the transit account –- now renamed the “alternative transportation account” -- out of the transportation trust fund and throw it into the general fund. This will add $40-billion-dollars to the budget deficit, unless some unspecified offsets are found. It’s a shell game, and worse, it drives a dagger into the backs of millions of commuters (city-dwellers and suburbanites) who ride transit.

With this extremist, partisan attack by House Republicans, Ronald Reagan must be rolling over in his grave. Congress should stop playing politics and get back to setting sound policy. It’s time to kill the House transportation bill and pass legislation that truly serves society and puts people back to work.

*News Flash* Since I wrote this piece, I'm glad to say that the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the nation's roadbuilders, sent a letter to the Chairman of Ways and Means opposing removal of the transit account from the trust fund. Here's the best paragraph of that letter:

The Mass Transit Account has been in existence since 1982 and AASHTO has continuously supported this account as a critical component of the Highway Trust Fund.  AASHTO has long supported the principle that 20 percent of the gas tax revenues that have been put in place since 1982 be allocated to a dedicated mass transit account.  We believe that the two complementary accounts need to be maintained in order to support a well-funded, multimodal transportation system.