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A Threat to Public Transit in Our Area

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A threat to public transit in our area
By Congressman Joseph R. Pitts

Our area is fortunate to have two wonderful transit systems, Lancaster's Red Rose Transit Authority (RRTA) and Reading's Berks Area Reading Transit Authority (BARTA). They provide invaluable service to hundreds of thousands each year. Many of their riders do not have another mode of transportation.

With the assistance of local, state, and federal funds, their service has expanded as our area has grown.
This week, the House approved H.R. 3550, the Transportation Equity Act: Legacy for Users (TEA-LU) Act. This bill authorizes the federal government to spend $275 billion on federal transportation programs, including $51.5 billion for public transit.

Much of this money will find its way to our state to aid in road and transit projects. However, the bill fails to address an issue of "equity" that poses a significant threat to both RRTA and BARTA.

Transit systems providing service in what the Census Bureau deems "urbanized areas" under 200,000 in population are afforded the flexibility to determine how best to use federal resources to meet their operational needs.

This flexibility was built in because each community has different needs and unique challenges. A large city, like Philadelphia, has vastly different needs and access to vastly more resources than a medium to small sized city, like Lancaster, Pennsylvania or Lubbock, Texas. So it is important that local decisions makers decide how best to use federal resources.

However, under federal law if an urbanized area exceeds 200,000 people the area's transit providers lose flexibility in the use of federal resources. Even though they continue to serve areas that are largely rural or suburban in nature, these transit systems are forced to spend federal money the same way big city transit providers do.

Developed in the 1970s, the 200,000 threshold was designed to separate small communities from big cities in the distribution of federal transportation funds. The threshold was first applied to transit programs in 1998. The threshold is beneficial for every other transportation program; for transit it acts as a penalty.

Areas exceeding the threshold back then tended to be densely populated urban areas. Today, they are far more suburban and rural in nature. As a result, the characteristics of the transit services are much different. They require greater flexibility in the use of federal support, not less, to meet local transit needs.

Larger systems, like SEPTA, are not affected by this rule. They have a far larger pool of resources. However, for smaller systems, the loss of flexibility will blow huge holes in their budget. RRTA estimates a shortfall of more than $500,000; BARTA faces similar numbers. In fact, the 2000 Census shows that as many as fifty transit systems are negatively affected by this rule. The result is lost service in these communities.

In the case of communities like Reading and Lancaster, the rule penalizes the healthiest, most vibrant areas in our nation. At the same time, federal transit dollars continued to pour into big cities that are notorious for waste and anemic population growth. It is not a good investment for the federal government.

In 2002, Congress passed a temporary solution to this problem. The President signed it into law, but the fix was only temporary and expired on September 30, 2003.

That's why I introduced the Transit System Flexibility Act to provide a common-sense long-term solution to this problem. This bill does not authorize new spending or expand any existing program. It merely updates federal law to prevent our nation's most vibrant communities from being penalized.

It states that if a transit system in a urbanized areas exceeds 360,000, but operates less than 100 buses on fixed routes during peak service hours, it is still eligible for this flexibility. This would protect transit systems from being penalized, but keep in place the assumption in federal law that big cities ought to spend money a certain way.

If the federal government is going to take the time and resources to invest in public transit, it should do it the right way. Penalizing communities that have relied on federal transit dollars to grow and thrive is not the way to do it.
My legislation provides a responsible, fair, and long-term solution to this problem.

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