Senate Committee Hearing Signals Possible Shift in Federal Transit Funding

Transit advocates were pleasantly surprised to hear senators address specific questions about the 80/20 split in transportation funding, transit operations, and rural transit needs.

2 minute read

May 3, 2021, 7:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

SouthWest Transit

Michael Hicks / Flickr

Unlike most years, when public transit gets so overlooked in the federal surface transportation reauthorization bill that many have taken to calling the package "the highway bill," the "[s]enators in the committee charged with writing the public transit portion of this law—up for reauthorization this September—surprised us at a recent hearing with questions that got to the heart of the policies keeping U.S. public transit behind." Transportation for America's director Beth Osborne testified before the committee as senators asked questions aimed at understanding "the 80/20 split between highway and transit funding, the value of funding transit operations, and rural transit needs," writes Jenna Fortunati in the Transportation for America blog.

The federal Highway Trust Fund has, since 1982, allotted 80 percent of its funding to highways and 20 percent to public transportation. "The logic behind this was that since the Trust Fund’s funding came from the gas tax drivers pay at the pump, most of the funding should be spent on highways." In a bright spot for transit advocates, "[t]he three COVID-19 relief packages broke this tradition by providing operating support to transit agencies." When questioned about funding transit equally, Osborne told the senators "this is what we need to do to give people multiple modes of travel." 

According to Transportation for America, funding transit operations in addition to maintenance and capital "will bring a return of more riders" by providing more frequent and reliable service. Osborne also emphasized the importance of funding rural transit, where many residents don't own cars. "[W]e forget that there are concentrations of people who live in distinct towns, and that services they need—like hospitals and schools—are moving farther away, consolidating into centers that serve entire regions. We need transit that can connect people to those regional hubs."

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