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Weekly Column: Moving America's Public Transportation Systems Forward

Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo

The Senate Banking Committee recently held a hearing on the reauthorization of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, which expires at the end of September 2020.  The FAST Act provides long-term funding certainty for public transportation agencies across the country, funding that goes toward capital purchases and operations of the systems, and ultimately promotes safety, mobility and economic opportunity.

Public transportation plays a key role in our nation’s economy.  There are over 430,000 workers employed in public transportation in the United States, and transit provides approximately 33 million trips every workday, taking many Americans to and from work, school and medical appointments.  Although people typically think of public transportation as large, urban transportation systems, such as subways, transit is a critical lifeline to many rural communities as well.  For example, in Idaho, where fixed-route bus service plays an important role in the more urban areas like Boise, non-emergency medical transportation is critical to the health and well-being of many elderly and disabled Idahoans, and tribal transit provides connectivity opportunities for the Coeur d’Alene, Nez Perce and Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.    

During this public hearing, there was an appropriately large emphasis on the fact that we are facing yet another surface transportation reauthorization where the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund is the most significant issue that needs to be addressed in order to advance a comprehensive, long-term reauthorization bill.  The Highway Trust Fund was originally intended to be funded with federal gas and diesel taxes.  However, since 1993, Congress has chosen to transfer general fund money into the Highway Trust Fund to pay for reauthorization bills.  The highway account required a $52.8 billion general fund transfer to pay for the FAST Act and the transit portion of the FAST Act required an $18.1 billion general fund infusion; these numbers will only continue to grow if we do not address the underlying solvency. 

There have also been many changes to the mobility landscape since the last reauthorization, such as the rise of on-demand service, transitions to electric vehicles and deployment of autonomous technologies that should be addressed in a comprehensive long-term bill.  Traditional fixed-route transit service is an essential backbone for comprehensive transportation networks.  However, there have been numerous technological advances that can enable a higher quality of service at a lower cost that agencies should consider.  Transit agencies should incorporate these technologies to complement fixed-route service outside of service hours, to provide non-emergency medical transportation, to bring riders to or from fixed-route service to their final destinations, and to modernize fare payment collection, just to name a few.

Federal policies should provide more certainty to transit agencies by addressing statutory and regulatory burdens in order to invite more innovation into the transit industry.  Federal policies should encourage business-like operations of transit systems.  This includes streamlining efficiencies, assessing current service with needs, maintaining assets in a state of good repair, leveraging resources for procurements, and seeking out partnerships with the private sector where appropriate.

Public transportation is an area of our Committee which is historically known for having overwhelming bipartisan support.  I intend to continue this bipartisan tradition as we seek to balance the needs of bus and rail, urban and rural systems across the country.  A long-term reauthorization bill is critical to providing the certainty and stability that transit agencies, cities and states across the country need to make responsible transportation planning decisions.  While there are many challenges ahead, it is possible for the Banking Committee to produce a long-term, fiscally responsible reauthorization bill that can garner broad bipartisan support.

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