Deep Divisions Over Transit Threaten Highway Bill Bipartisanship

  • Republican cites mismanagement in opposing new transit funding
  • Democrats push for larger share of federal spending

Transit is emerging as a key partisan split as lawmakers draft legislation to reauthorize surface transportation programs and respond to President Joe Biden’s $2.25 trillion infrastructure plan.

Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said transit agencies have already received enough money from the federal government. Congress provided agencies with more than $82 billion in regular annual funding and several Covid-19 relief packages over the past year, Toomey said during a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing Thursday.

“We sent all these billions of dollars to transit agencies without requiring any kind of reforms to be implemented,” Toomey, the panel’s ranking member, said. “Let’s face it, the financial woes of many big city transit agencies long predate Covid.” No other Republicans on the committee participated in the hearing.

Toomey’s comments come as Republicans pledge to present their own suggestions for infrastructure spending. GOP senators at a press conference Thursday said they’re preparing a “conceptual” infrastructure bill and pointed to bipartisan legislation from 2019 as an optimal framework.

Democrats see transit as a solution for climate, congestion, and equity issues, and say agencies need more money as the economy begins to recover. They’re aiming to boost transit funding in the next highway bill. The current authorization, initially enacted as the FAST Act, Public Law 114-94, expires Sept. 30.

“Public transit will help restore and grow our economy as we emerge from the pandemic,” Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said.

Senate GOP Prepares Infrastructure Counteroffer

Photo: Nina Westervelt/Bloomberg
A bus driver wears a protective mask while picking up passengers in New York City on April 13, 2021.

Highway Bill Focus

Biden’s infrastructure package called for $85 billion for transit, which Republicans oppose.

Brown called the proposed infrastructure plan and transit spending “necessary,” saying Congress must revitalize transit to lower everyday transportation costs and create jobs.

“It’s how we finally seize opportunities instead of running from them,” he said. “It would put people to work, and it would invest in the places that have been left on their own by Washington and Wall Street for too long.”

Democrats Prepare to Tackle Biden’s Sweeping Spending Package

Republicans argue that transit funding should remain within the surface transportation programs and that Congress should concentrate on negotiating the reauthorization of those programs.

Toomey said the committee should come together to “responsibly reauthorize” the programs and refocus federal transit funding on maintenance.

Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said he and ranking member Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) have been reviewing his panel’s bipartisan 2019 legislation as he looks to craft this year’s surface reauthorization. The two senators’ staffs meet just about every week to go over what’s before them “so there won’t be any surprises,” Carper said at an event Thursday.

Money Formula Split

Several witnesses at the Banking panel hearing urged the committee to change the formula of the Highway Trust Fund to give more money to transit. About 80% of the fund’s money goes to highways, while 20% goes to transit.

Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America and a former Obama administration official, said transit and highways should receive equal funding.

“For nearly 40 years we have stuck to a deal that was made during the Reagan administration,” she said at the hearing. “At the time, the gas tax paid for the whole program, something that has not been true in over a decade.”

More Democrats have supported changes to the funding formula in recent years, but Republicans oppose it. Toomey said Congress should keep transit’s share of the Highway Trust Fund at the long-standing level of 20%.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at lbyington@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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