Mass Transit Loved by Locals, but Tough for Feds



Step into the office of a member of Congress to talk about transportation and you’ll probably get an earful about the size and scope of federal transit programs. Democrats generally want more investment. Some Republicans question whether the federal government should even be involved.

Step into a city council chamber, however, and you’ll hear something different. Growing interest in public transit, especially among young people, has local officials clamoring for the federal government to fund transportation.

“America needs something new,” Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker told fellow mayors and other city officials in Washington, D.C., at the National League of Cities’ annual summit earlier this spring. “We certainly have been, in the last half century, a country whose surface transportation has evolved around the vehicle. … This vision has run its course.”

Running through Salt Lake City is a 45-mile, county-wide, light-rail system that expanded to reach the airport in 2013. There’s also the Sugar House streetcar, a two-and-a-half mile system stretching between Salt Lake City and its neighbor, South Salt Lake.

Becker, a Democrat, called it “the catalyst for enormous development,” estimating it stimulated more than $400 million in investment. It’s part of a change in the expectations of constituents, he said.

Utah’s transit authority reported record ridership in 2014, with roughly 45 million boardings, according to Remi Barron, an agency spokesman.

“To ignore these changes, and not adapt to them and not invest intelligently with federal transportation dollars, to me, is a real misplacement of taxpayer dollars,” Becker said.

Many city officials say transit spurs development and draws corporations to communities where people can get to work without a car. Transit-oriented development has become a buzzword and companies such as Siemens are trumpeting the benefits of such projects.

The engineering giant included Salt Lake City’s rail projects in an economic impact study on infrastructure projects and found that work on public transit in the city resulted in more than $225 million in business sales and 1,300 jobs.

Economic Development Research Group, which analyzed the rail expansion projects in Salt Lake City, said major companies including Adobe, eBay, Goldman Sachs and based office-location decisions partly on proximity to light-rail and commuter-rail stations.

But public transit isn’t an easy a choice for many in Congress, partly because transit projects are expensive and federal dollars are increasingly hard to find.

The Federal Problem

The acting director of the Federal Transit Administration, Therese W. McMillan, told the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee in April that transit systems were “crumbling at the seams.” She urged Congress to address an $86 billion maintenance backlog she said would grow by $2.5 billion a year if it’s not addressed.

But House appropriators propose keeping federal transit funding flat and cutting the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority funding by $50 million, though that number was subject to change depending on Wednesday floor action.

Much of the federal spending for transit systems comes from the Highway Trust Fund, which has financial problems of its own. For fiscal 2015, about 15 percent of what’s spent from the fund will go to transit and 85 percent to highways, according to the Congressional Budget Office.