Former PA Gov Rendell: Best Transpo Bill Would "Do No Harm"

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(photo by Kate Hinds)

Transit backers have given up on a comprehensive highway bill this go-around, hoping instead that whatever passes Congress this year lays the table for 2013. And, they say, whatever comes in 2013 must put public transportation on equal footing with roads.

That was the message today on a conference call given by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), which released a report predicting that volatility in gas prices would spur an additional 290 million passenger trips on public transportation this year.

APTA says transit systems nationwide are groaning under the weight of additional passengers and less funding. "More than 80% of our members have had to either raise fares, cut service, or do both as a way to manage their economic challenges," Michael Melaniphy, APTA's president, said. "At the same time, we had our second-highest ridership since 1957 last year."

Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania and a co-chair of the infrastructure group Building America's Future (which co-sponsored the report), was asked about the likelihood of transportation funding reform in the current political climate.

"I don't think we're going to get a five or a six-year bill. I think we'll get something that will carry us into 2013, and I think the best that we can hope for at this point is to do no harm," Rendell said. "But in 2013, it seems to me that Congress and the administration have to come to grips with the problems facing not only our transportation infrastructure, but our entire infrastructure."

Which, he said, "is in desperate shape," adding that he's hoping for "a ten year, long-term infrastructure revitalization program."

Rendell said he had been “horrified by the original proposal floated by the House” that would have stopped gas-tax revenues from being used to fund transit systems. Republicans had said instead that transit funding should come out of a general fund. But that provision was not included in the extension passed in March, which kept things more or less status quo.

Curtis Stitt, the president of the Central Ohio Transit Authority, offered a cautionary tale about general revenue funding -- which, he said, is how public transit is funded in Ohio. "Ten years ago," he said, "the entire state got -- for about 42 transit agencies in the state -- we got about $43 million." In the aftermath of the financial crisis, he said, "this year we're getting $7 million."

APTA officials urged Congress to look at the transportation system holistically -- because that's how Americans see it. Gary Thomas, who runs Dallas' transit system and is also APTA's chairman, said "they view our transportation network as one system. Which is why both public transportation and the road network should continue to receive funding from the highway trust fund."