Where transit stands with COVID-19 relief bill and FY21 omnibus legislation

Dec. 22, 2020
Transit will see $14 billion in additional coronavirus emergency relief, while the FY21 omnibus bill will deliver increased funding to key grants and programs.

Updated 12/21/20 9:10 pm: The U.S. House of Representatives has passed the stimulus and omnibus spending package. It now heads to the Senate where a vote can take place if all Senators agree. 

Updated 12/21/20 10:43 pm: The Senate has passed the emergency relief and spending package; the bill now heads to President Trump. 

Updated 12/28/2020 11:30 am: President Trump has signed the bill into law. 

Congress extended its pre-Christmas session to reach a $1.4-trillion deal to fund the federal government through September 2021 and provide $900 million in COVID-19 emergency funding relief. Both the House and Senate were expected to vote and pass the legislation only hours after the 5,593-page package was published.  

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the package “a good bipartisan bill” on the House floor Monday morning, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement Sunday that read in part “as our citizens continue battling the coronavirus this holiday season, they will not be fighting alone.”

What does the package include for the transit and passenger rail industry? Mass Transit has broken its analysis into two parts, the first dealing with the emergency relief funding and the second with the omnibus legislation.

Emergency relief funding

The relief package includes $45 billion for transportation. Transit, passenger rail and private transportation providers, such as motorcoach companies, will receive $17 billion of those funds.

Transit accounts for $14 billion, which is $1 billion less than the bipartisan, bicameral proposal from earlier in the month.

The $14 billion for transit includes:

• $13.27 billion for urbanized area formula funds;

• $50 million for enhanced mobility for seniors and people with disabilities formula funds; and

• $678.65 million for rural area formula funds.

Differences from the above numbers and the bipartisan proposal from earlier in December include a $50-million reduction in the enhanced mobility formula funds, a more than $321-million reduction in rural area formula funds and the elimination of the proposed $628 million in emergency relief grants.

There is a caveat to the funding for urbanized areas (UZAs) in that no UZA may exceed 75 percent of the area’s 2018 operating costs when combined with the funds provided through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

An example using rough numbers: The National Transit Database lists the New York-Newark UZA’s total operating expenses in 2018 at $14.71 billion; 75 percent of this total would be slightly more than $11 billion. The UZA transit systems received approximately $5.4 billion in CARES funding. When subtracted from the 75 percent threshold, this would leave the area eligible for an additional $5.5 billion in emergency relief funds.

In a UZA such as Houston, where 75 percent of the 2018 operating expenses is approximately $412 million, the UZA would be eligible for $153.43 million because it received $258.57 from the CARES Act.

Moving on to passenger rail, Amtrak is set to receive $1 billion in emergency relief funds, which is equal to what was proposed earlier this month. The funds include $655 million for Northeast Corridor Grants and $344 million for National Network Grants.

Finally, providers of transportation services, such as private bus and motorcoach companies, will be eligible to a portion of $2 billion in emergency relief. This is $6 billion less than what was proposed earlier this month, but this segment of the transportation industry was completely left out of the CARES Act.

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) has been urging Congress to provide an additional $32 billion in funding to U.S. transit agencies, but called the $14 billion included in the package “desperately needed emergency transit funding” that is vital to the industry’s survival.

“[APTA], on behalf of the entire public transportation industry, urges immediate passage of the newly proposed H.R. 133, the ‘Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021’. This bill includes COVID-19 emergency relief, annual appropriations for Fiscal Year (FY) 2021, tax extenders and many other important provisions,” said APTA President and CEO Paul Skoutelas. “The proposed legislation is a critical step in supporting public transit agencies so that they can survive and help our communities and nation recover from the economic fallout of the pandemic. However, this legislation is just one important step. APTA and the public transportation industry will continue to advocate for additional emergency funding in the new year, with at least $32 billion needed to serve essential workers and help our communities recover.”

FY21 omnibus funding levels

The FY21 omnibus package was, overall, generous to transportation modes. The U.S. Department of Transportation was appropriated $86.7 billion in total budgetary resources, which is $553 million above the 2020 enacted level.

The package includes $1 billion for National Infrastructure Investments (TIGER/BUILD grants), which is equal to what was made available in 2020. The bill’s language calls for a 50/50 split of the grants to go to urban and rural areas.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) was appropriated $13 billion, which is $37 million above the 2020 enacted level. Additional highlights of the FTA appropriations include:

  • $10.8 billion for formula funds
  • $2.014 billion for the Capital Investment Grants program:
    • $1.17 billion in New Starts funding
    • $200 million in Small Starts funding
    • $525 million in Core Capacity funding
    • $100 million for the Expedited Project Delivery Pilot Program
  • $150 million for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority
  • $516 million for transit infrastructure grants:
    • $243 million for the Bus and Bus Facilities Program
    • $125 million for the Low or No Emission Bus Program
    • $40 million for rural area formula grants
    • $40 million for high density states grants
    • $40 million for state of good repair grants
    • $8 million for ferries, with $4 million designated for low or no emission ferries
    • $2 million for bus testing facility grants
    • $16.22 million for grants for areas of persistent poverty
    • $1 million for innovative mobility grants to develop software to facilitate demand response transit
    • $1 million for accelerating innovative mobility grants

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has been appropriated $2.8 billion, which is $27 million above the 2020 enacted level. Highlights from the FRA section include:

  • $200 million in Federal-State Partnership for State of Good Repair grants
  • $375 million for Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) grants, which stipulates $75 million must be used to develop intercity passenger rail projects and $25 million must be used to target trespassing.
  • Amtrak has been appropriated $2 billion in the package, which includes $700 million for Northeast Corridor Grants and $1.3 billion for the national network. The package includes language that would prohibit Amtrak from reducing the Amtrak Police Department below May 1, 2019 staffing levels.

Editor's note 12/22/20: TransitCenter has shared its analysis of UZA funding for the CARES Act and new stimulus package. It can be viewed here

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Group Editorial Director

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine and group editorial director of the Infrastructure and Aviation Group at Endeavor Business Media. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the editorial direction of the group and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.