Senate Releases Details on Transit Legislation
On January 30, 2012, the U.S. Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs committee released details on its transit legislation, the Federal Public Transportation Act of 2012. The Act will be combined with highway, safety, freight, and finance titles from other Senate committees into a full federal transportation reauthorization bill. As reported in previous Policy Updates, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee marked up its highway bill last November, and the Senate Commerce Committee reported out freight and safety titles in December. The Banking Committee will hold a markup session for the transit bill on Thursday, February 2 at 9:00 a.m. CT.
The Federal Public Transportation Act of 2012 would provide a two-year reauthorization and reform of federal transit programs totaling $8.36 billion annually. The Act maintains current funding levels and eliminates earmarks, improves safety oversight, promotes maintenance, provides for research and workforce development, and streamlines the project construction process. The Act would consolidate some transit programs (e.g. the New Freedom and Elderly and Disabled programs), move others (e.g. the Job Access and Reverse Commute program to the Urbanized Area Formula Grants), and would establish new programs altogether (e.g. Clean Fuel Grant Program). Funding formulas and criteria are generally the same for major programs such as the Urbanized Area Formula and Rural Area Formula programs, but the Act reforms the funding process for the State of Good Repair Program (formerly the Rail Modernization Program). The Act would provide also greater flexibility for transit agencies to use Urbanized Area Formula grants for operating expenses, particularly for smaller transit systems and for all systems during periods of high unemployment.
Four policy initiatives are described in further detail below:
- The new State of Good Repair Program has three components: a rail formula program, a "high intensity" bus program, and a discretionary grant program for rail projects. As mentioned above, the funding criteria differ from the previous Rail Modernization Program. The new system bases funding on the age of the system, revenue vehicle-miles of service, and direction route-miles of service, rather than the former funding tiers and earmarks. The Act also would establish a transit asset management system to define "state of good repair" and collect data on asset inventories and conditions.
- The Act would promote safety oversight by establishing a National Public Transportation Safety Plan, requiring transit agencies to develop and regularly review safety plans, requiring states to develop safety oversight plans and then allocating federal funds to these plans. It would grant the Secretary of Transportation expanded authority to review transit agencies that are in violation of federal safety laws.
- The Act would require metropolitan planning organizations such as CMAP to adopt performance targets in planning for transit investments and also creates a pilot program to support planning for transit-oriented development; this requirement is consistent with performance measures in Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee highway reauthorization bill.
- The Act would reform the New Starts program, the discretionary grant program to assist fixed-guideway transit projects, including both new projects and extensions to existing facilities. The main reforms seek to streamline project delivery by eliminating duplicative steps in the regulatory review process and by expediting the review process for qualifying smaller projects (i.e. those under $100 million in cost). The reforms would modify the definition of bus rapid transit projects to ensure they meet the "characteristics of fixed guideway systems." The reforms would also establish a new category for eligible capital projects to allow existing transit systems to apply for New Starts funding for "significant" investments.
GO TO 2040 calls for an increased commitment to public transportation, with a particular focus on maintenance and modernization of the existing system. The provisions in the Federal Public Transportation Act of 2012 appear to implement these policy recommendations, although overall funding levels do not increase. It is especially encouraging to see the Act address the New Starts program, the reform of which is a key recommendation in GO TO 2040. Another Policy Updatedescribes the New Starts topic in greater detail.