Congress typically passes a long-term transportation bill to fund highway and transit programs every six years. In 2012, Congress passed what many consider a temporary two-year patch called MAP-21. MAP-21 was sold as a streamlining measure that eliminated or significantly cut dozens of federal programs. While the overall funding level for transit rose slightly under MAP-21, funding for the Bus and Bus Facilities program was reduced from $984 million in FY 2012 to $422 million in FY 2013 – a cut of more than 57 percent at a time of increasing ridership. This came in spite of the fact that public transit buses account for more than 50 percent of all transit trips nationwide.
Salem-Keizer Transit (SKT) and similar small and mid-size transit agencies across the country relied on the competitive bus grant program to institute a reasonable bus replacement schedule. SKT has 24 buses that will meet or exceed their useful life if not replaced in the next couple of years. Restoration of the bus grant program was critical to meeting SKT’s short- and long-term capital needs.
As a new long-term transportation bill was being crafted in 2015, it was clear there was not going to be a silver bullet to solve the overall problem of transportation funding. Gas tax increases were off the table and new revenue sources were never a political reality. As such, it would be difficult to get any program a significant addition, including the Bus and Bus Facility program.
Buses represent a significant cost and require more frequent replacement and substantial investment by transit agencies. In practical terms, cuts to FTA’s Bus and Bus Facilities program meant more buses operating past their useful service life, significantly higher maintenance costs and less reliable service to riders.
Boosting bus program funding was going to be a heavy lift. Salem-Keizer Transit was a member of the newly formed Bus Coalition, a group of small and mid-size transit agencies dedicated to restoring bus funding. The Bus Coalition represents more than 100 transit agencies and has contacts throughout the country. CFM Partner Joel Rubin worked closely with the Bus Coalition for months to raise awareness of the bus funding issue. After the Coalition’s strategy to boost funding in the House and Senate transportation bills came up short, CFM approached Congressmen Jaime Herrera Beutler (D-WA) and Kurt Schrader (D-OR) to see if they would champion the cause and offer a stand-alone amendment on the House floor.
Both Herrera Beutler and Schrader supported increased transit funding for buses, but the obstacle was how to pay for it. To increase funding for the bus program, another program would have to be cut; and cutting programs in Congress is never easy. CFM worked with the Bus Coalition to find a path forward, resulting in a proposal to remove funds from a transit program that only benefited seven Northeastern states, including New York and New Jersey.
In November 2015, the Herrera Beutler/Schrader amendment to restore nearly $2 billion to the competitive bus program was brought to the floor. The House Transportation Committee opposed the amendment primarily because many of its members hail from the Northeast. This kind of opposition typically prevails in Congress, but this time it didn’t because of the national scope of the Herrera Beutler/Schrader amendment and the national outreach of the Bus Coalition.
CFM and the Bus Coalition still had to fight to maintain these funds in the final House/Senate Conference report. By coordinating with the Bus Coalition and Members of Congress from Oregon, Washington and across the country, we were able to secure more than $1.5 billion for the restored Bus and Bus Facility grant program. A program that was eliminated just three years before is now a robust funding source for transit agencies across the country. Now, transit agencies like SKT will compete for approximately $300 million per year.
CFM Partner Joel Rubin represented Salem-Keizer Transit in taking on this challenge. Learn more about Joel and his work here.