Lack of Long-Term Funding Creates Stop-and-Go Situation for Local Transit

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Early Saturday, May 23, 2015, the United States Senate approved by voice vote, and sent to President Obama a bill (HR 2353) the Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2015 to keep highway transit money flowing to states for another two months. Funding for transportation was due to expire May 31.

US DOT FHAWhat happens in Washington, D.C. does have an impact on local public transportation as most money to operate comes from the federal government, filters down to states, then on to local and regional projects, including public transportation providers like TAPS Public Transit.

TAPS CEO and Executive Director, Brad Underwood, said the extension translates into an assurance that the Highway Trust Fund will remain solvent and continue to fund programs only until August. Funding would be based on fiscal 2014 levels.

“The Highway Trust Fund is made up of two accounts —one for highways and one for transit. Public transportation has been living on a extension-to-extension basis for a very long time. That means agencies like TAPS cannot adequately plan for hiring and capital improvements without a multi-year commitment from Congress.

“The last long-term funding was in 2003, with the expiration of TEA-21, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. Since that time, there have been 25 short-term extensions to keep public transportation rolling,” said Underwood. Congress has been unable to agree on a long-term plan, keeping the trust fund teetering on the edge of insolvency since 2008.

Given the uncertainty of funding from Washington, D.C., TAPS Public Transit still showed significant growth over the past three years. Much of the expansion for TAPS came from an aggressive program of governmental and private partnerships.

“When the board of directors first made the decision to grow TAPS, there was special funding from the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) through the Job Access Reverse Commute program (JARC),” said Underwood.

“We looked at the JARC funding opportunity and realized it was a very good match for our situation in Texoma. That was how the Red River Route —between Texas and Oklahoma— was developed. The grant’s directive was to provide public transit for welfare recipients, and low-income workers, to get to and from jobs.

“In 2012, Grayson College was creating a bridge for its associate degree students to complete a four-year degree at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. TAPS has had a longstanding relationship with Grayson College and getting their students to school via The Viking Route. We thought public transportation had a role to play,” said Underwood.

The Red River Route was the first of several JARC-funded routes to be launched between 2012 and 2015. In each case, financing comes from a combination of sources that include local municipalities, private business, and non-government organizations.

Underwood knows the growth that TAPS has experienced is not sustainable without the critical federal government cash flow. “Our challenge in public transportation is to reconsider what we’re doing across our service area and act accordingly.

“Without increased support from local governments, more extensive partnerships, and with the blessing of foundation grants, we can’t keep up with our current pace. Something’s got to give.”