As things in Washington, D.C., stand now, H.R. 7, the transportation bill that has had many wringing their hands over the past few weeks, is unlikely to become law without some serious work. Still, New York representatives from both sides of the political aisle are concerned that the city will lose a major source of transit funding (and money that goes toward job creation in the area). They and leading transit officials have been speaking out against the bill.
Yesterday, in a conference call with numerous transit agency heads, MTA CEO and Chairman Joe Lhota explained how New York City benefits from the current funding scheme. “That billion dollars in funding is used to buy rail stock and switching and signaling equipment, critical to maintaining our system in a state of good repair,” he said.
Under the new bill, a dedicated funding stream for transit projects would dry up, and the money allocated for various grants for transit projects would be thrown into a common pot. Every project would compete for scarce funds, and transit and pedestrian-improvement projects would be a complete disadvantage to road building. But that’s the problem only on the top level. Below the surface the bill is rife with inefficient practices.
Take, for instance, Section 5310 of the new bill. This section concerns the bus and bus facilities formula grant. According to some commentators, approximately $900 million would be available for transit agencies under this section, but there’s a giant caveat. Section 5310(c)(1) discusses eligibility and defines it as such:
RECIPIENTS- Eligible recipients under this section are providers of public transportation in urbanized areas that operate fixed route bus services and that do not operate heavy rail, commuter rail, or light rail services.
In simple English, the only agencies eligible for funding under this section — the only folks who could claim a piece of a lofty $900 million pie — are those who operate bus systems only and also do not operate any rail service. That will lead to two consequences: Either any major transit agency — the MTA, the WMATA, the MBTA, etc. — would all be eliminated or they would have to spin off their bus operations into brand new agencies thus creating another layer of transit bureaucracy.
Transportation for America is highly critical of this section of the bill. This section, they say, “needlessly diverts tax dollars to bureaucratic overhead that should be used to provide much-needed transit services to local communities.” Why have one transit agency without streamlined operations that wastes money on bureaucracy when you can have two?
On a granular level, this is the kind of transit policy coming out of the House of Representatives right now. As three decades of dedicated transit funding sources are coming under attack, common-sense governmental operations are under the microscope too. The MTA has worked hard, with varying degrees of success, to tame a multi-agency bus system, and if H.R. 7 becomes law, the authority would either have to forfeit funds or discard its bus system entirely. Nothing about that sounds like sound policy to me.
As of now, the bill doesn’t have the votes to pass the House, but as Streetsblog noted yesterday, we’re not out of the woods yet. “I think that the drafters go back to the drawing board and they recognize that we have some issues that we can’t just overlook,” Michael Grimm, a House rep from Staten Island said. Hopefully, those drafters will listen to officials who are urging a better bill, but I’m not so optimistic.