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EastLink Light-Rail, Local Bus Service in Jeopardy, Say Area Transit Leaders

A U.S. House bill would end dedicated transit funding, reversing 30 years of public transportation policy.

Leaders from all six Puget Sound transit agencies gathered in Seattle Monday morning to issue a plea to lawmakers in Washington, D.C. to continue supporting dedicated transit funding.

A federal transportation bill currently being debated on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives is poised to end the Reagan-era practice of dedicating gas-tax funding to both highways and transit, and would instead shift to a smaller one-time “alternative transportation account” — set to expire in 2016. The move would also leave transit systems scrambling to compete with other programs for the smaller pot of money, according to a joint press release.

Supporters of the US House legislation say the funding bill "streamlines federal transportation programs, cuts red tape in the project approval process, increases states’ flexibility in determining their most critical transportation needs." Critics maintain "it would erode the nation’s multimodal transportation system that provides both jobs and access to jobs for scores of Americans."

In 2011, the Puget Sound's transit agencies received about $324 million in federal grant revenues for transit.

"Make no mistake," said King County Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond, "this (US) House bill would present a setback."

Local (WA-8), a Republican, and to the House floor for a vote two weeks ago. Differing versions of the bill in the House and Senate — which is much less controversial — are expected to pass this week and later be reconciled before a final vote.

Sound Transit, which is already scaling back projects and services thanks to a 25-percent drop in funding due to the Great Recession, is warning that the proposed funding changes could halt voter-approved light-rail projects. The EastLink light-rail project that would , and the University Link connecting Seattle to the University of Washington and Northgate Mall would be at risk.

Last year, congress reduced funding for the University Link light-rail project by $6 million and Earl said the same could happen to EastLink and other projects where the federal government has already pledged a financial commitment.

"The House bill calls into question some key assumptions built into our capital plan in both the short and long term," said Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl.  "Our ability to deliver on key projects, whether it's extensions to the University of Washington, Bellevue and Redmond, Lynnwood, Federal Way, or Tacoma Link, will be in question if our federal partner becomes less reliable. It is crucial that our congressional delegation work to defeat this bill."

According to a statement from King County Metro, the measure could lead to a reduction in bus service at a time of record ridership. , Metro was able to preserve current levels after the King County Council raised car tab fees to make up of lost funding. But Metro's Desmond said the changes proposed in the house bill would cause his agency to delay replacing aging buses and trackless-trolley buses, thereby increasing maintenance costs. Metro received $65 million in dedicated funding in 2011.

Pierce Transit, which dramatically scaled back services 43 percent over the past three years, could shrink much more, warned CEO Lynne Griffith. She said the House Transportation budget puts at risk $7.6 million dollars from its budget, which impacts its ability to put service on the street. 

"Loosing another dedicated funding stream would be another significant economic blow," she said. "Our citizens have already experienced so much upset."

Community Transit spokesperson Todd Morrow said the group would be watching congress closely this week as amendments to the funding bill are offered.

Representatives from smaller regional transit partners Kitsap Transit and Everett Transit say annual federal transit funding of $4 million and $1 million could be at risk, respectively. 

Jerry Gropp Architect AIA February 14, 2012 at 04:44 AM
More and more of us Mercer Islanders depend on Sound Transit to connect with downtown Seattle without having to drive our cars and pay to park them. As for me, I find I ride the bus more often with great savings in time and money.
Candace Scarcello Dempsey March 17, 2012 at 06:56 AM
Why would our own Congressman, Dave Reichert, spearhead this? Am I reading it correctly? Couldn't the president veto it? "Local U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert (WA-8), a Republican, voted to move the funding bill out of committee and to the House floor for a vote two weeks ago."
Kendall Watson March 17, 2012 at 04:07 PM
Here's the latest on Transportation funding in Congress: After the House version (described above) was moved to the floor by Rep. Reichert (yes, still represents MI until the end of the year), the House leadership tried to whip up enough votes for quick passage without going through the normal process with amendments and realized they couldn't do it. Debate has been rescheduled a few times on this while they are negotiating with members to get enough votes. Meanwhile in the Senate, Barbara Boxer's 2-year Transportation Bill (S. 1813) was passed on Wednesday, 74-22 — which retains Safe Routes to School, dedicated transit funding, bike and ped. funding. http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/senate-ready-to-pass-bipartisan-overhaul-of-highway-transit-programs-house-action-uncertain/2012/03/14/gIQAZks6AS_story.html Congress needs to act fast because it will soon loose legal authority to appropriate gas-tax revenues for transportation funding. If they hit the deadline, WaPo warns "If a final bill isn’t on the president’s desk by then, Congress would have to approve a temporary extension to avoid a shutdown of the programs, including the furlough of Federal Highway Administration employees and the layoff of construction workers." (This might sound familiar from last summer — an FAA re-authorization bill was not passed before authority to collect taxes expired, which resulted in about 74,000 furloughs and hundreds of millions of taxes uncollected).

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