Transit enthusiasts were disappointed with the initial House stimulus package. It contained $30 billion for roads and bridges and $10 billion for mass transit. That is only slightly better than the usual breakdown of federal transportation dollars — 80 percent for highways and 20 percent for public transit. And it fell short of what transit advocates in Congress, such as Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), were pushing for.
But with transit agencies facing severe budget shortfalls that will force them to raise fares and cut services just when they are most needed, Nadler was able to amend the stimulus bill on the House floor on Jan. 28 to include an additional $3 billion for transit, much of which will go to helping major urban transit systems meet their operating costs.
Transportation for America, a broad new coalition that ranges from planning and architectural organizations to the National Association of Realtors and other business interests, praised the amendment as, “a critical step towards creating jobs, providing much-needed support to ailing transit systems across the country, ensuring access to opportunity for all of us, and making a down-payment on a green energy future.”
But, as they and anyone who follows politics know, this is only the first step in a long battle on this bill alone. The Senate must pass their version of the stimulus legislation, the two different versions must be reconciled in conference committee and the president must sign it into law. Institutional obstacles, from the influence of the road building lobby to the rural and fiscally conservative biases of Senate committee chairman, may derail the transit dollars. Transportation for America is urging their grassroots supporters to write their Senators in support of the mass transit funding.
While this amendment, if ultimately successful, will certainly be a victory for mass transit, the real test will be later this year, when Congress takes up the Surface Transit Re-authorization law. That law, which governs transportation funding for six years, will be the real test of where Congress’ priorities are.
Ben Adler is a journalist in New York. He is a former reporter for Grist, The Nation, Newsweek and Politico, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The New Republic.