While there are a lot of big plans and big changes underway for transit agencies across the country, there’s one issue out there with a much hazier outlook for the year that could impact nearly everyone in the industry — the reauthorization of MAP-21.
The program has been around for about two years and has doled out money to agencies across the U.S. to upgrade systems and get them into a state of good repair. However, despite the program’s successes, politics are threatening to derail MAP-21. Now U.S. Department of Transportation leaders, transit agencies and advocacy groups are ramping up their efforts to make sure the law is reauthorized while still pushing for a long-term funding solution for transit.
FTA takes its case to Congress
On Jan.16, FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff took his case to Congress by testifying in front of the Senate Banking Committee about the importance of MAP-21 reauthorization and the success it has had the past two years. Besides national ridership on track to exceed 10 billion trips annually for the seventh year in a row, he said the investment in transit ridership has spurred economic growth.
“This two-year reauthorization codifies some of President Obama’s highest priorities for enhancing the safety of public transportation, strengthening our nation’s transportation infrastructure, and streamlining government to serve taxpayers’ needs more efficiently,” Rogoff said.
MAP-21 has allotted more than $20 billion in funds since it was first put into law in 2012, which has been used to help modernize transit systems across the country and work to bring infrastructure and equipment into a state of good repair. Supporters of the law often point to increases in transit ridership nationally and some agencies seeing record ridership along with new major economic development after making improvements to their systems.
Rogoff said the FTA has also been very aggressive in implementing the provisions of MAP-21 in the area of emergency relief and as portions of the New York and New Jersey areas continue to rebuild from the massive 2012 storm.
“The Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 appropriated $10.9 billion for the Emergency Relief Program for recovery, relief and resiliency efforts in areas affected by Hurricane Sandy,” he said about the provision. “Unfortunately, this amount was almost immediately reduced by $545 million as part of sequestration. FTA is allocating the remaining $10.4 billion in multiple tiers for response, recovery, and rebuilding; for locally prioritized resiliency projects; and for competitively selected resiliency work.”
During his testimony he told lawmakers he understands the challenges that accompany the law along with the potential insolvency of the mass transit account within the Highway Trust Fund.
“The funding constraints imposed by the full fiscal year 2013 and the partial fiscal year 2014 continuing resolutions, coupled with cuts imposed by sequestration — including a $5 million cut in our administrative budget — have hampered our ability to move implementation forward at an even more rapid pace,” he said. “The cuts have, for instance, affected our ability to implement significant new safety authority and reduced our ability to conduct outreach and training with stakeholders.”
Due to the funding issues, Rogoff said has been unable to make funding commitments to New Starts projects for the first time in 20 years. The FTA also cut payments owed to communities for transportation projects that are already underway.
“MAP-21 offers an important opportunity to recalibrate the way our government evaluates and invests in our federally funded public transportation infrastructure,” Rogoff stated. “From a transit perspective, the law’s major provisions enable FTA to focus limited resources on strategic investments and policies that will result in a better and safer riding experience for millions of Americans, while repairing and modernizing transit systems for generations to come.”
Advocacy ramp up lobbying efforts
One of the biggest assets supporters of MAP-21 reauthorization may have in resolving the issue is the outreach transit advocacy organizations are pushing to get politicians to support the continuation of the bill and its efforts.
Marcia Hale, president of Building America’s Future, said there’s optimism amongst some MAP-21 will be reauthorized, but the midterm elections in November could make it difficult for such a piece of legislation to get through.
In the 2012 election cycle, she said BAF did reach out to presidential candidates in New Hampshire and South Carolina to gauge the presidential candidates’ support of transportation funding. The effort was so successful they plan to do it again this year.
However, she warned that bills like this can simply be extended multiple times, so it there’s no guaranty Congress will take definitive action this year.
“And this is an election year, so anytime you’re trying to get something done just before an election it can be difficult,” she said about the effort.
Leanne Redden, senior deputy executive director of planning for the Northeastern Illinois Regional Transportation Authority, said members of Getting America to Work are working to educate federal leaders about the importance of public transportation and the need to have long-term dedicated funding for transit. The issue is very important for the 85 member coalition given the massive need to get systems into a state of good repair and the uncertainty the current status of MAP-21 is creating for transit planners and leaders as they craft capital budgets.
Redden said Getting America to Work is also focusing on outreach to the media and reaching out to other organization that also benefit from MAP-21 reauthorization and the creation of permanent long-term transit funding.
“We will continue to focus on growing that coalition and including more members so there are more voices telling members of Congress about our needs and the importance transit,” she said.
Hale said BAF has been able to push grassroots support for MAP-21 funding using its “I’m stuck” app, which allows users to report whenever they have an issue on a bus, train or are stuck in traffic. The app sends the notification directly to the user’s senator and congressman, to continually inform them about issues in their home districts.
When the app first launched, Hale said there were 10,000 to 12,000 downloads, so the organization needs to keep the word out there to make sure more people download the app and use it to report issues.
“I think it’s important that these elected officials know there’s a great deal of support for MAP-21 and transit spending in general,” Hale said. “In general, these bills don’t happen without the grassroots support.”
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell has been a vocal advocate for transit funding for BAF and Hale said former U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is now part of the organization to push for funding.
“I recently saw an op-ed in the New York Times that was really interesting…how important transit is and how much more important it’s getting around the country and how transit is helping a city grow and attract young talent and new businesses,” Hale said. “It’s very important we continue to push for transit funding and that’s all types of transit.”
Redden said members of the coalition are focusing on educating members of Congress why transit issues aren’t just the concerns of major metropolitan areas because regions with much smaller populations also see a significant benefit to properly maintaned transit services.
She said it’s important all revenue sources are considered to pay for transit improvements, including a discussed gas tax.
“I think even when you educate people about the role and the benefits of transit systems, there are still a lot of financial challenges facing all sectors of our economy and how this is funded is really the toughest question,” she said. “People might agree more about the value of transit, but the question of how are we going to fund it, that’s the toughest question and one of the biggest questions.”