May | June 2017




by Lisa McKinney
With growing mass transit needs and uncertainty about the future of federal funding, states like Georgia and Colorado look for new solutions to expand and maintain their transit systems.
It has been suggested that the federal infrastructure investment President Donald Trump campaigned on could attract $1 trillion from the private sector. But his budget proposal shows federal cuts to transit, placing much of the responsibility for funding transit projects on localities, and eliminates funding for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grants. TIGER grants fund road, rail, transit and port projects across the country.
How much states and localities rely on federal funding for building and maintaining public transit systems varies widely. The Federal Transit Administration provides grants to local municipalities for capital transit projects to both build new and upgrade existing infrastructure. Larger transit agencies such as New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority and Los Angeles’ Metro often rely less on federal funding than smaller agencies, but the amount can vary over time depending on the number of capital projects ongoing in a city. In 2014, for example, federal funding accounted for 11.4 percent of capital spending in Los Angeles, while it accounted for 54.7 percent in Boston.
Several major cities voted to invest in public transit in November 2016 through ballot measures that will expand bus and rail services, but most transit ballot measures rely on federal funding for capital projects. Voters in Indianapolis approved a transit expansion package to upgrade bus service in Marion County. Raleigh, North Carolina voters approved a bill to expand bus service and commuter rail connections, while Atlanta passed a half-cent sales tax that will expand rail and bus networks.
Although the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act reserved about $10 billion a year for transit through 2021, the uncertainty surrounding federal funding for public transit is motivating some states to take a proactive approach to ensuring they can meet their transit needs.
And those needs are great. Major transit systems are struggling with maintenance backlogs and service cuts. Some transit systems are turning to ride-hailing companies to pick up the slack with routes. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2017 Infrastructure Report Card gave transit a D-minus, the lowest grade awarded in any category, in part due to a $90 billion backlog in maintenance on the nation’s transit systems.
“Transit in America is hitting ridership records (10.75 billion trips in 2014), yet the symptoms of overdue maintenance and underinvestment have never been clearer or in some cases more dangerous, resulting in the report card’s lowest grade,” said Greg DiLoreto, chair of the ASCE 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, during an April CSG webinar.
The Georgia Legislature is looking into how to provide statewide transit funding starting with Senate Bill 6, introduced during the 2017 session, which would create a 19-member Georgia Regional Transit Council. The council would develop a statewide plan for a “seamless transportation network with dependable trip times for commuters. ” The council would investigate limited access highways, road congestion relief, safety enhancements and transportation innovation. It would include three members, each appointed by the leaders of the state Senate and House. The heads of the Georgia Department of Transportation, the State Road and Tollway Authority, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, or MARTA, and the Georgia Transportation Alliance also would be members.
Funding mass transit has not always been politically popular in Georgia, but the arrival of new tech companies and large corporations like Mercedes-Benz and State Farm, which are building facilities close to MARTA lines, as well as Atlanta’s traffic congestion, have underscored the need for transit investment. Georgia is one of the few states that do not provide regular mass transit funding.
“Georgia continues to grow at a record pace, especially in the metro areas like Atlanta,” said Georgia state Sen. Steve Gooch, chairman of the study committee and sponsor of SB 6.
“There are a lot of folks moving to an area with a lot of sprawl; Atlanta is not stacked 50 stories high like some cities. We are seeing so much congestion on our roads even with all the new money we’ve dedicated to highways and bridges. It’s not enough to keep up with demand. Millennials are moving to the cities and they don’t want to have a car—they want ridesharing, biking and public transit.”
The Georgia General Assembly is also looking into consolidating the state’s myriad of transit agencies to improve efficiency. Some of the state’s transit agencies, such as Gwinnett County Transit, only serve one county, while others, such as MARTA, serve multiple counties. The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority provides regional service. The Senate Study Committee on Regional Transit Solutions, charged with examining if the state should consolidate the agencies, recommended “an all-inclusive solution in the area of transit governance and funding” to be enacted in 2018.
Gooch said the council is looking at regional transit opportunities in the suburbs of Atlanta that have their own transit systems, which are in many cases riding side-by-side with the MARTA buses.
“There are a lot of redundancies in the systems,” he said. “We want to combine efforts to make a more unified system. We put about a million dollars in the budget this year to procure professional help with developing mass transit options.”
Gooch said there is widespread support for these efforts from both parties in the Legislature in part because Interstate 85 was shut down on the last day of the 2017 session due to a fire that caused a collapsed bridge.
“It is a congestion nightmare,” he said. “A lot of people are now using MARTA and ridesharing for the first time. We realized how important diversifying options are. It could have been worse, but we do need to offer other alternatives.”
Colorado has been looking into state-led solutions to transit funding since at least 2009, passing legislation to ease restrictions on using state funds for public transportation. Colorado’s Constitution restricted revenue from license and vehicle registration fees and motor vehicle excise taxes to the “construction, maintenance and supervision of the public highways of this state,” which limited the state’s ability to invest in public transit. In a 2009 transportation funding bill, known as FASTER, the Legislature defined how this constitutional provision is interpreted through declarations of legislative intent to make the funds available for transit, pedestrian and bicycle projects. FASTER also specifically allocated funding to a new state rail and transit account. In this process, the Legislature recognized investments in mass transit, walking and other alternative forms of transportation reduce traffic and wear on highways, which keeps maintenance costs down.
Colorado granted even greater spending flexibility to local governments with a 2013 law, SB 13-048, which allows counties and municipalities to use state fuel tax revenues for transit, biking, walking and multimodal projects, as long as no more than 15 percent is used for transit operations.
Both FASTER and SB 13-048 have allowed for $102 million in awards to local transit agencies and have created 265 individual projects, said Colorado state Sen. Nancy Todd, who serves on the Senate Transportation Committee and sponsored SB 13-048. Approximately $1 million has been spent on “rural regional” services; similar services connect seven of the state’s largest transit agencies and 80 percent of the state’s population. In 2015, 13 buses, serving about 300 miles along I-25 and I-70 corridors, began operation. This bus program’s ridership has grown every year by 30 percent, requiring the purchase of more buses for the fleet, said Todd.
“Public transit is incredibly important not only to reducing congestion on our roads, but it’s important to help alleviate the burdens of lower income families and people who do not own a vehicle,” Todd said. “By creating a state with better public transportation infrastructure options, we are not subjecting families who can’t afford or choose not to own a vehicle to a geographical area to find employment and live.”