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.