Transit Groups Urge Funding Equity, Upending Decades-Old Formula

  • Highway bill deadline renews debate over transit spending
  • Transit groups from at least 13 states mount advocacy push

Advocacy groups from states across the U.S. are urging Congress to evenly fund transit and highways in the next surface transportation reauthorization bill.

The effort, convened by the National Campaign for Transit Justice, kicked off Thursday with letters sent to federal lawmakers from at least 13 states.

The formula for the Highway Trust Fund distributes 80% of the money to highways and 20% to transit. The groups are urging Congress to “equalize” the funding for the first time in decades. They want a significant increase in capital investments for transit and $20 billion in annual spending toward a goal of putting the majority of Americans within walking distance of transit by 2030.

The groups are pushing for the changes to be included in the next highway bill, which Congress must pass by Sept. 30.

Advocates said they believe this campaign has a good chance of success because it aligns with the administration’s desire to address equity and climate change through transportation. They face an uphill battle, however, in convincing Republicans, and some Democrats from rural states without transit, to change the long-standing funding formula.

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Photo: Christopher Dilts/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A Chicago Transit Authority train arrives at a station on June 3, 2020.

“Over the past several decades, federal investment in transportation has consistently neglected public transit. The systemic racism of transit disinvestment needs to stop,” the groups wrote in the New York letter, which was convened by transit advocacy group Riders Alliance.

The push comes separately from the Biden administration’s $2.25 trillion infrastructure package, which proposed spending $85 billion to modernize and expand transit. The White House hasn’t made recommendations for surface reauthorization.

Pandemic Momentum

The National Campaign for Transit Justice successfully advocated for transit funding in Covid relief legislation. The group formed during the pandemic because “transit was in a death spiral,” said Libero Della Piana, a senior strategist with Just Strategy who is helping coordinate the campaign.

“We think that this year is a crucial year to change the direction of transportation priorities,” Della Piana said.

Republicans have complained that transit agencies got too much funding in the Covid relief laws. Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs ranking member Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) called the supplemental funding “staggering” during a committee hearing last week.

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Toomey said the Highway Trust Fund formula should stay the same, and other GOP members have agreed.

Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director for Riders Alliance, said the Covid relief was short term to keep transit agencies afloat, but this push is for a more long-term solution that is “overdue.”

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com

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