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General Accounting Office Report on Reauthorizing the Surface Transportation Assistance Act's Mass Transit Program

Mass Transit, Historical Patterns and Future Outlook

Statement of Kenneth Mead
Director, Transportation Issues
Resources, Community, and Economic Development Division

Before the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight
Committee on Public Works and Transportation
United States House of Representatives

March 5, 1991

GAO / T-RCED-91-15

We support a multi-modal strategy to address transportation needs. However, the proposal's success depends upon eliminating the biases that favor highways and integrating transit and highway planning and decision making at all levels of government.

Although UMTA's proposal represents a 1-percent increase over funding during the past 5 fiscal years, inflation over the next 5 years may actually [will] result in a decrease in purchasing power.

The American Public Transit Association estimates that $6.5 billion in federal funds would be needed annually just to maintain the existing mass transit infrastructure. UMTA's proposed funding falls far short of this projection. In addition, UMTA data show that the federal share to implement all new construction projects now under review would be over $10 billion. [The projects under review for new starts are well below the desired level due to lack of funds creating self constraint. --DC] Over the reauthorization period, about $1.8 billion in federal funds would be available for new construction.

We should note that the administration's proposal increases funding for the highway program by over 25 percent compared with transit's 1-percent increase... However, given the disparate increases, this issue should be reconciled in the context of the nation's surface transportation needs.

We support a multi-modal strategy to address surface transportation infrastructures and congestion and believe that transportation should be viewed as a system whereby all modes seek to resolve these issues rather than only one mode.

First, one transit objective is to move people out of their cars, and one highway premise is to build roads that can accommodate more and more cars [which of course should stop --DC]. UMTA envisions a cooperative, federal, state, and local planning effort between mass transit and highways, but the criteria used to assess transit and highway projects may make it difficult to choose between the two modes. [Base the criteria for both highway and transit projects should be based on people moved. --DC] DOT prepares separate budgets for transit and highways, and no strategic plan exists at the federal level to provide guidance to the states, localities and grantees to implement multi- modal flexibility. Also, given that federal dollars have predominantly funded highway construction, the inclination to continue past practices and look to highways in lieu of transit may persist without federal direction or incentives to optimize flexible funding.

Second,... only a limited number of states have funds that can be used interchangeably for mass transit and highways.

Third, federal funding for mass transit and highways will remain under separate agencies -- UMTA and the Federal Highway Administration. At the state and local levels, transit funding will remain primarily with urban areas and highway funding with the states. The mass transit industry is concerned that states will place greater attention and emphasis on highways to the detriment of mass transit. Highways would be eligible for all mass transit funding except for new starts (about $14 billion); mass transit would be eligible for all urban/rural highway program funds (about $22 billion). To avoid modal bias with highways and meet the flexibility envisioned in the proposal, it will be extremely important to encourage states to address traffic congestion through transit alternatives.

[We propose an apportionment system based on land area and population, with an Efficiency Feebate Apportionment Program, based upon improvements in the ratio of Gross State Product divided by Vehicle Miles Traveled.

Some rail projects parallel the national highway system, though will be unable to get NHS funds, thereby causing a highway bias. --DC]

In a time of tight budget constraints, it is critical to ensure that grantees use and manage funds properly. However, UMTA does not effectively oversee grantees' management and use of funds.

[This lack of effective oversight is probably due to UMTA being underfunded. --DC]

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