Transit Officials Offer New Reason to Oppose HR7: Bond Ratings

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(Photo (cc) by Flickr user quinn.anya)

Public transit officials are using the congressional recess to regroup in their battle against a Republican-backed House transportation bill. And the new voices joining the choir of transit-focused opposition to HR7 are bringing new lines of argument against the legislation.

On Wednesday, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), rallied seven public transit officials from across the country, including heads of transit agencies in New York City, Washington D.C., Seattle, Chicago, Columbus, Ohio and Philadelphia.

The most vocal opposition to the bill has been in defense of transit funding. As written HR7 would stop funding mass transit through a federal gasoline tax for the first time in about three decades. Instead it would provide mass transit with a one time grant that would need to be approved by Congress each year to be extended.

The transit agency heads pointed out, that wasn't the only funding problem the bill would cause. The bill would also make it more difficult to obtain future bond issues for planned projects.

SEPTA General Manager Joseph Casey told reporters on the conference call that HR7 would make it harder for Philadelphia to secure bonds for future projects.  The city's transit system uses the federal funds to finance major construction projects, like issuing bonds to purchase rail cars, something San Francisco is now considering with a price tag in the billions of dollars.

Of Philadelphia's project, Casey said, "I've already been told by the bonding agency that the rating on those bonds will be reduced from A1 to a BBB."  Casey said two point reduction would dramatically increase the cost to carry the current bonds, as well as to issue new bonds for future projects.

Opponents of the House transportation bill also fear the it would introduce great uncertainty into the public transit system funding process, because there would be no automatic annual appropriation.

The bill's author, Representative John Mica (R-Fla), maintains that opposition to the bill is based on the fact that there fewer earmarks for pet projects than there were in past transportation funding bills. He added that dedicating all of the gas tax to highways and roads is a preferable way to ensure their maintenance, while states can still choose to fund transit as they wish.  Proponents said that the highway tax should not pay the bill for mass transit.

Congress is expected to take up the bill some time next week, after it returns from recess.