APTA advocates for long-term transport funding

More than 350 organisations joined the American Public Transportation Association’s call for long-term federal transportation funding last week as part of the first-ever National Transportation Infrastructure Day.

According to a new report released by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) this month, the US economy stands to lose $227 billion over the next six years if a long-term transportation funding package is not passed by Congress and signed into law by May 31. 

This deadline marks the day when the most recent temporary funding measure – the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP 21), which is supporting the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) – is set to expire.

That was one of the arguments APTA Chairman and General Manager of Denver, Colorado's Regional Transportation District, Phil Washington used to remind Congress that rural and urban communities  across the US place great importance on transportation funding. He also noted that April 9 was chosen as the day of action because it coincides with the traditional start of the construction season.

Washington said in a media call on Thursday that Congress' current approach to transportation funding is “like ignoring the change oil light in your dashboard and expecting your car to still run”.

“This country has been on a 30 year infrastructure vacation [and] it's time to get back from this vacation. We need a long-term bill and we need it now. Transportation infrastructure is going to fail.”

Along with the worry that the HTF will not be funded with a long-term package, public transportation agencies are also concerned about two resolutions currently circulating in the House of Representatives, HR 1461 and HR 1551, which call for the federal defunding of public transportation.  HR 1461 would immediately eliminate the mass transit account of the HTF, and 1551 would phase out and eliminate deposits in the transit account steadily over five years. 

According to APTA President and chief executive Michael Melaniphy, national public transportation ridership last year reached 10.8 billion trips, the highest in 58 years – a clear signal that more, not less, funding is needed to bolster transportation systems.

Washington said that a dearth of funding would be especially harmful for the Denver public transportation system, forcing a 15 percent – or $100 million – budget cut that would inevitably lead to job losses for many employees. Inversely, he claimed that predictable investment in transportation infrastructure would yield significant economic benefit. 

Chris Koos, 12-year mayor of Normal, Illinois, provided an example of this, noting that the construction of a new uptown transportation station that connected the area's eight different transportation modes helped spark a $165 million boost in private investment. This had played an instrumental role in revitalising Normal's central business district and improving the quality of life of his constituents, he said. 

Koos now fears a cut in federal funding could jeopardise his government's ability to meet demand for public transportation. Even as ridership jumped 40 percent last year, he said, most of the buses in the Normal system are around 10 years old; the system would be hard-pressed to keep up with maintenance and equipment acquisition needs without funding. 

In New York City, ridership increases are also putting a heavy strain on the capacity of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). According to MTA Chairman Tom Pendergast, 2013 saw only one day where subway system ridership topped 6 million – then an all-time record. But in 2014, subway ridership was over 6 million for 29 days.

In support of long-term transportation funding, more than 350 organisations around the US hosted events under the banner of “Stand Up 4 Transportation” as part of the APTA National Transportation Infrastructure Day. These included companies active in the infrastructure investment space such as AECOM, whose President Tom Bishop in a statement recognised “the current state of US transportation systems and the need for planning for the future.”

“Transportation systems are an effective engine for US prosperity and growth, and securing a long-term federal funding bill will benefit America's communities at the local level, by supporting their economies and creating short- and long-term job growth opportunities.” 

Despite the many calls for Congress to enact a long-term transportation funding bill – and the existence of two proposed bills to accomplish said task currently circulating in the House of Representatives – there is little confidence that any package will be passed by the May 31 deadline due to partisan disagreement as to how such a bill should be funded.