Public transportation systems across the country are under tremendous pressure as the recession has reduced the state and local revenue streams that help fund their operating expenses to nearly a trickle. According to the American Public Transportation Association, 84 percent of transit systems have cut service or raised fares, or might do so. More than half have cut jobs and a third have laid off employees, APTA says.
In response, eight Democratic senators from the Northeast and Midwest have introduced legislation to provide transit systems with $2 billion in emergency aid to cover their operating budgets. By law, mass transportation can only use its share of revenues from the Highway Trust Fund, which provides most federal funding for transit programs, to pay for capital expenses.
Some public transportation advocates want Congress to go a step further and allow transit agencies to use their federal dollars to meet their day-to-day operating costs as well. Others fear that doing so would reduce needed capital investment and could reduce state and local government contributions to transit budgets as a result.
With the federal budget deep in the red, anger over Washington overspending on the rise, and other programs that serve public needs (like education) also clamoring for emergency aid, should the government spend $2 billion on emergency operating assistance for mass transit? When Congress takes up reauthorization of surface transportation programs next year, should it change the law so transit agencies can tap their federal funds to make up for shortfalls in their operating budgets so they don't need emergency aid in the future?