House, Senate expected to vote on stimulus package over the next few days; Should we be content about transit’s share in the bill?
Yesterday, the Congress’ Conference Committee finally came forward with its compromise stimulus legislation, which we detailed in the previous post. The final bill came as a bit of a shocker, as it substantially increased the amount of funds to be dedicated to intercity rail, from $1.1 billion in the House bill and $3.1 billion in the Senate bill to $9.3 billion in the final bill, which will be considered today by the House and Monday by the Senate. More evident in the blogosphere, however, was the negative reaction over the bill’s reduction in aid to transit, from $12 billion in the House bill to only $8.4 billion in the compromise legislation for formula grants, the New Start and Small Start programs, and fixed guideways modernization.
As a big proponent of transit, I too was dismayed by the compromise, which drained public transportation of necessary funds. It was especially discouraging to see this compromise after the fight that led to Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) successfully proposing a $3 billion transit amendment to the House bill. We need more funding for our transit systems so that they can stave off fare increases and service reductions, and so that they can keep their rolling stock and guideways in a state of good repair.
And yet, I can’t help but feel satisfied by this bill. While almost every other program in the stimulus package was being gutted by moderates on both sides of the aisle, transit retained its funding as compared to the Senate’s proposal and rail substantially increased its share over both the House and Senate versions. In the chart below, comparing the stimulus bill to fiscal year 2008 appropriations to transportation programs, it is evident that the big loser in the stimulus bill was the highway program, not transit. Though roads make up 60% of the stimulus’ land transportation component, they made up 78% of the 2008 budget. Rail programs zoomed up from 2% of that budget to 21% of the stimulus, and transit roughly maintained its relative importance in funding.
What we see in the stimulus bill, then, is a manifest change in funding priorities, increasing the share of sustainable transportation from 22% to 40%. This is a significant improvement.
It is also reasonable to see the stimulus bill as making up for years of neglect. After all, the Bush Administration has repeatedly threatened to cut off funding for Amtrak entirely and only in last year’s Congressional session did the agency finally get a strong and sustained funding guarantee on the order of $2.5 billion a year over the next ten years. On the other hand, the Bush Administration, though it hasn’t exactly been transit’s best friend, also hasn’t cut off funding for the Federal Transit Administration, which has maintained its relative share of federal transportation dollars since the Clinton Administration.
So the stimulus bill fills an important gap, funding rail to a degree that has never before been accomplished in the United States. It also does not sacrifice transit for the sake of rail, instead decreasing the funding share of highways, a good move. Though we should grieve the inability of transit advocates to secure more funds from the bill, we shouldn’t despair, because the roads lobby was hit directly here. More importantly, though, rail deserves this big infusion of money, as Amtrak and high-speed rail programs should play an important role in the future of mobility in our country. It looks like Congress and the Obama Administration are taking their first big steps towards making such surface transportation improvements a reality.
|Comparing the stimulus bill with transportation appropriations in FY 2008|
|FY 2008||Stimulus Bill|
||% of total||Appropriation||% of total|
|Highways||$37 b||78%||$27.5 b||60%|
|Amtrak/Rail||$1 b||2%||$9.3 b||21%|
|Transit||$9.5 b||20%||$8.4 b||19%|
|Total Roads||$37 b
|Total Rail/Transit||$10.5 b
The discretionary funds in the amount of $1.5 billion are not included in the table above (the stimulus component) because they may be directed to transit, rail, or highways.