This fiscal situation presents HRT with its biggest legislative challenge — how to generate a stable local funding source. For years the Transportation District Commission of Hampton Roads, HRT’s board, has included the desire for a dedicated funding source as a top item on its legislative agenda.
Statewide, however, it has proven difficult to convince the entire regional delegation that transit requires investment in an environment of fiscally conservative constituencies who question the value of public transportation. Further, some believe that increasing the tax burden should only stand to benefit the building and maintaining of roads, pitting mode against mode. HRT continues to make the case that a dedicated funding source that provides a stable source of operating funds would create a system that operates at much higher frequency and service level and become a truly viable method of transportation, and inducing usage by those who typically use cars as a primary method of transportation.
Since 1996, legislators in Hampton Roads have tried to tackle the issue of dedicated funding. There have been several efforts in the Virginia General Assembly to provide such a funding source. House Bill No. 1364 allocated a 2 percent sales tax on fuel region-wide that would help fund public transportation in Hampton Roads. This bill, as well future efforts, failed. Had these measures passed, the source of funds would have provided a more stable, admittedly not totally stable, revenue stream for transit operations.
Locally, it has proven difficult to convince each municipality that it is in the best interest of city governments for HRT to be funded by a source other than property taxes. The current funding structure provides an element of control that officials are not willing to give away easily.
Having dedicated funding would enable HRT to reach all citizens throughout Hampton Roads by providing reliable services where they are needed most or are in highest demand rather than where municipalities are willing to pay for them. While HRT has worked with its elected officials both on a local and state level in past successful bids for dedicated funding, it remains our biggest legislative challenge. We hope that future efforts will prove successful.
J. Barry Barker
Transit Authority of River City (TARC)
The most significant legislative challenge for public transportation is getting recognized as a high priority and communicating to legislators their role in supporting it. Legislators must understand that public transportation has a role in improving social services, economic development, the environment and general mobility, and that every city or state’s quality of life depends on a robust transportation system. Whether at the local, state or federal level, legislators have a responsibility and a role in improving mobility options.
Another challenge, particularly for mid-sized and small cities, is the mindset that transit exists for low-income people who don’t have cars. Those of us in the industry know that an effective transit system attracts a diverse group of commuters and that “choice” riders are an important part of our customer base. People ride to help the environment, save on gas and car maintenance, and to avoid traffic congestion. It is sometimes difficult to get the attention of legislators to explain the array of benefits that flow from a well-designed and well-financed transit system.
State and local budgets are shrinking in virtually all states and cities, and transportation funding is one of the inevitable victims. Like other cities and states, the Transit Authority of River City (TARC) has to compete with other agencies and other transportation needs for limited funding. This occasionally pits our agency against some of our closest allies and best partners. This potential conflict may occasionally require some delicacy in making a request for funding. For instance, in Kentucky federal money passes through the state for smaller transit systems but is allocated directly to the large, urban systems. This means that state officials are generally more attuned to the grant matching requirements for rural and smaller systems and so are quicker to lobby for those funds to be included in state budgets. Because TARC, like other urban systems, receives funding directly, the assumption often is that we will also cover the match locally. The difficulty becomes garnering support for the larger, urban systems without reducing support for the smaller ones.