Transportation funding uncertainty impacts planning for Western Pa.
The six-bus fleet at the Butler Transit Authority makes about 225,000 trips a year. Executive Director John Paul estimates 20 percent of riders are senior citizens, many of whom have no other options to get around.
“People don’t understand how many people rely on public transit,” Paul said. “For these people, it’s their lifeline.”
The agency relies on federal money for about 40 percent of its budget. But that could be in jeopardy as Congress mulls transportation funding under a looming deadline.
The nation’s federal transportation funding plan expires May 31. The Highway Trust Fund is nearing insolvency, and so is its Mass Transit Account, which supports public transit in rural and urban areas nationwide.
The Congressional Budget Office said in March the highway fund is set to end the year with a cash balance of $2 billion, and the transit account with $1 billion.
Congress previously authorized spending on a short-term basis, without establishing revenue structures to shore up the funds. In the most recent two years, spending totaled $105 billion.
That causes uncertainty, making it difficult to plan for long-term service changes or fleet upgrades, Paul said.
“You just don’t know what your funding is going to be,” he said. “Hopefully, there would be a five- or six-year bill that would address this issue, but it all comes down to funding.”
Most of the money for the Mass Transit Account comes from a 2.86-cent portion of the 18.4-cent per-gallon federal gas tax, flat since 1993. Another 2.86 cents comes from the 24.4 cents-per-gallon tax on diesel fuel. U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has said raising this tax is off the table as he pursues a long-term funding plan.
Rural agencies, such as the one in Butler, get direct operational support from federal transportation programs. Urban agencies, such as Port Authority of Allegheny County, use federal funds for capital projects, said spokesman Jim Ritchie. The agency anticipated more than $53 million this year and will use roughly $29 million to buy 90 buses in the fall.
Chris Sandvig, regional policy director with Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, said a hypothetical freeze or decrease to federal funding means more pressure on transit agencies to fund their capital projects — such as bus replacement or garage expansion — using dollars from elsewhere.
“Then they have to start cutting into operating funds,” he said. “What does that do to service?”
Bill Flanagan, chief external affairs officer for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, said the issue is central to regional employers, who cited public transit as a top issue in a survey last year.
“They told us they were concerned about the ability to live without a car, to have to not have a car to get everywhere,” Flanagan said. “They’re concerned about it because it affects the other big issue for our region, and that’s the working-age population.”
Port Authority estimates around 84 percent of its riders use the system to travel to work, according to a 2010 survey. Forty to 45 percent of Butler County riders use the system for work.
Rob Healy is the vice president for government affairs at the American Public Transit Association in Washington. He doesn’t anticipate a long-term government funding plan before the current one expires. Though the impending election cycle could hamper transformational action, politicians are showing a willingness to come up with a plan, he said.
“I think there is a growing recognition that these are basic investments in the nation,” he said. “You’re building a transportation system to handle the demands of the American public.”
Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511.