Proposed transportation bill moves in the wrong direction

THE OLYMPIANFebruary 20, 2012 

Intercity Transit and other mass transit systems around the country have relied on federal funding to keep their buses and vans running for more than 30 years.

But a proposed federal transportation bill working its way through Congress would strip away that funding at a time when demands for mass transportation in South Sound are at an all-time high.

The $260 billion transportation bill introduced by House Republicans would move this country in the wrong direction, increasing dependence on single-occupancy vehicles, foreign oil and drilling for domestic oil and gas in environmentally sensitive coastal areas.

It’s a bill chock full of bad public policy that would threaten the financial stability of public transit all across the country, including here in South Sound.

The country is headed toward $4 per gallon gas this summer, with some forecasters predicting $5 per gallon gas in the not-too-distant future. Now is not the time to undermine federal funding for a transportation option more people are turning to than ever before.

In 2011, 5.33 million passengers boarded an Intercity Transit bus, van or took advantage of the dial-a-lift program. That compares with 3.6 million boardings as recently as 2005.

There’s no reason to believe boardings won’t continue to climb in the years ahead as the population continues to grow in urban Thurston County and cities improve their ability to encourage high density housing along the major urban corridors.

It was 1982, with support from Republican President Ronald Reagan, when Congress started allotting federal highway trust funds at the current rate: 20 percent for subways, buses and other forms of mass transit and 80 percent for highways, bridges and tunnels. In 2010, that amounted to $32 billion for traditional road infrastructure and $8 billion for alternative forms of transportation.

The thinking 30 year ago remains logical today: Federal support for public transportation improves air quality, reduces traffic congestion, and helps seniors and the disabled live independently.

In 2011, Intercity Transit received $2.8 million in federal grant revenues from the highway trust fund, and the transit authority has budgeted $2.9 million in 2012, representing 8.6 percent of its annual operating budget. Last year, the Olympia-based transit agency also received a $1.5 million federal grant to replace aging buses.

The frequency and number of routes and other services such as the popular vanpool program are bound to suffer if the House Republicans have their way.

Thanks to local voters who approved a 0.2 percent increase in the local sales tax in August 2010, Intercity Transit was able to avoid service cuts. About 73 percent of the IT budget is derived from sales tax revenue.

However, the continued economic downturn, combined with reductions in overall sales tax revenue, threaten the transit agency’s ability to maintain service levels. The hare-brained funding plan in the House bill would only make matters worse.

“The loss of federal funding would have a direct impact on our operation and our community,” IT general manager Mike Harbour said. “It would very likely require us to reduce service levels and delay or cancel capital projects. Both of these actions would further damage our local economy and the ability of area residents to travel to work, school and other activities.”

Harbour isn’t alone in his criticism of the House measure. The American Public Transportation Association is mounting an aggressive public relations campaign to try to beat back the bill, which, if it does pass, faces rough sledding in the Senate and a likely veto from President Barack Obama. Federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is on record calling the bill the “worst transportation bill” he’s seen in 35 years of public service.

A 2010 survey by Intercity Transit found strong support for the local mass transit system. While 52 percent of the respondents said they either use or would consider using the bus regularly, a whopping 92 percent said they believe public transportation is very or extremely important.

The House Republicans are out of synch with transportation trends today and into the future. The public wants more, not fewer, transportation options, and federal transportation funding should reflect that desire.

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