Funding for Bay area transit agencies still in question

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At Monday's HART meeting in Ybor City, a consultant to the transit agency, Jeff Booth from the Holland & Knight law firm, provided an update to members of Hillsborough County's Major Projects and Legislative Committee on the status of the transportation bill.

Unlike Secretary La Hood, Booth declined to opine on the content of the bill, but did say that House Speaker John Boehner was having considerable trouble rounding up a bare majority of 218 votes to pass the controversial legislation, because concerns about its content are not coming exclusively from Democrats.

Booth did predict that the U.S. Senate will pass its version of a transportation bill within the next couple of weeks.

He also mentioned a bigger issue going forward: how to fund transportation at the federal level in the future.

The federal gasoline tax has remained at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993. Those funds raise most of the revenue that is deposited into the Highway Trust Fund to fund road construction.

Earlier this month in the Senate Finance Committee, Wyoming Republican Mike Enzi introduced an amendment that would index the gas tax to inflation, and received support from noted fiscal hawk Senator Tom Coburn from Oklahoma. Enzi said the tax would be 18.9 cents a gallon this year if indexed for inflation. “That is not much of an increase, but it would be enough to fund what we need now.” (However, Enzi ended up dropping the amendment).

HART board member Karen Jaroch told Booth she had a problem with how transportation is funded in the U.S., saying she'd prefer that the feds give transportation money back to Florida so it could best decide how to fund its public projects.

Booth said, "Every year there's been an effort to devolve the program," but said when it came to the New Starts program, the federal government is already playing a smaller role, requiring local jurisdictions to pay between 55 to 60 percent of the project. And he said regarding regarding highways, the states themselves are funding fewer projects, kicking them down to the counties, which in some cases have had to raise taxes to maintain their transit needs.

"We've deferred a lot of maintenance in this country on infrastructure, and at some point we're going to pay a cost to that," Booth said, sounding like many progressives who say the country is falling apart in maintaining its roads and bridges. "There's a ripple effect in the failure to invest."

Because of Presidents' Day, both the House and Senate are gone all week from Washington, meaning there obviously won't be any work on these respective bills until next week.

After getting an update on the agency's finances later in the meeting, HART CEO Philip Hale said that he has serious concerns about how his budget will look later in 2013, specifically mentioning the acquisition of new buses. He added that unlike other transit agencies across the country, however, he feels good that HART has no outstanding debt.

In referring to the controversial transportation bill that still lacks a majority to get through the House of Representatives, you might recall the line used by Woody Allen to begin Annie Hall.

“There’s an old joke - um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ‘em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’

Such are the sentiments of some in the transit agency community, who may may feel the same as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has labeled it as both the "worst" transportation bill he's seen in decades and the most partisan.

The proposed bill calls for the elimination of dedicated funding from the Highway Trust Fund for public transit, replacing it with a one-time allocation that runs out completely in 2016. It also would cut
subsidies for Amtrak by 25 percent and slash funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects.

The current transportation legislation expires at the end of March, so transit officials hope something is passed within the next month for federal funding to continue. But in Tampa Bay and at transit agencies across the country, there is considerable concern about what might happen next.

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