Rural Transit Gets Rare Bipartisan Backing for Infrastructure

  • Senate transit panel aims for bipartisan surface bill
  • Rural agencies ask for more funding, flexibility

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle showed sympathy Tuesday to rural transit agencies’ requests for more funding in surface transportation legislation.

Republicans have previously refuted Democrats’ calls to boost transit funding, saying agencies already received enough federal money from Covid-19 relief laws. Democrats are now pointing to rural regions as an area of agreement with the GOP as lawmakers craft the transit portion of the Senate’s surface transportation reauthorization bill.

“Transit’s almost always thought of as an urban issue, but small bus operations and on-demand transit operations play key roles in connecting low income citizens in rural communities too,” Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said at a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs subcommittee hearing. She said the current level of federal funding is “insufficient to meet the needs of the transit agencies that operate in rural areas.”

Photo: Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Tina Smith (D-Minn.), chair of the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee’s Housing, Transportation, and Community Development panel.

The banking panel is one of four Senate authorizing committees that will work on surface transportation legislation. The current authorization, initially enacted as the FAST Act (Public Law 114-94), expires Sept. 30.

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Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), chair of the Housing, Transportation, and Community Development Subcommittee, said she wanted the hearing to help inform the committee’s transit title as committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and ranking member Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) negotiate bipartisan legislation.

“The transit title has historically been a bipartisan area of agreement,” Smith said at the hearing. “New investments in a transition to a clean economy in transportation, including electric vehicles and low carbon renewables like ethanol and biodiesel, these shouldn’t be left out of rural places.”

Brown said he is working with Toomey and other members of the committee to write a “robust transit title.”

Smith and subcommittee ranking member Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) recently co-sponsored legislation (S. 267) that would boost the federal share of operating costs for Federal Transit Administration rural area formula grants.

“We need to help our rural communities by providing equal opportunities to rural funding, as well as encouraging more consistent funding by increasing the amount of formula funds as compared to the discretionary funds,” Rounds said at the hearing.

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‘Strained’ Resources

Witnesses at the hearing pushed for more funding and flexibility. Kendra McGeady, director of transit at Pelivan Transit in Oklahoma, said rural providers face daily obstacles with inadequate funding, diminished staff, aging fleets, and failing infrastructure. She said the reauthorization will provide an opportunity for improvements such as increasing the federal government’s local funding match.

Barb Cline, executive director of Prairie Hills Transit in South Dakota, said “state investments are often inconsistent and local resources are strained,” which has resulted in the need for more stable federal funding.

Brandon Nurmi, assistant director for Arrowhead Transit in Minnesota, said the aging population, disabled community, and low-income households need additional transportation options. He also called for changes to how rural agencies qualify for funding.

“One of the largest barriers we face in rural transportation is the ability to provide access to rural and deep rural areas that would not meet classic passenger metrics used to evaluate the value of a route,” Nurmi said.

House Also Pushing for Transit

The House is moving forward with increased spending on transit. The House Democrats’ $547 billion surface transportation bill (H.R. 3684), which the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will consider Wednesday, would authorize $109 billion for transit over five years.

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Meanwhile Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) released legislation Tuesday that would authorize $20 billion annually for four years for transit agency operating budgets. The bill is separate and in addition to proposed funding for transit in surface transportation legislation, an aide to Johnson said.

“This kind of funding is a game-changer for Atlanta and communities across the nation,” Johnson said of his proposed bill.

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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