Senate Committee Examines Transit and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law

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Public transportation’s advancement through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) was the focus of a hearing held by the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs on March 15th.

Enacted in November, the bipartisan infrastructure law contains a whopping $91 billion for transit, including spending for development planning, State of Good Repair Grants, and low-emission vehicles. This investment represents a historic opportunity to improve the nation’s public transportation networks and reduce the $176 billion transit backlog, which is expected to grow to more than $270 billion through 2029.

ASCE submitted a Statement for the Record to the Senate Banking Committee, suggesting key actions such as incentivizing asset management and life-cycle cost analysis in new competitive grant programs and encouraging the implementation of new technologies into our nation’s transit systems. The statement also noted the critical need for workforce development programs and securing long-term funding for infrastructure.

Workforce-related needs were one of the major topics raised by witnesses at the hearing. Joanna Pinkerton, president of the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA), mentioned the workforce shortage impacting the transit sector, noting that COTA has had to make service cuts due to staffing challenges. Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, praised the law’s measures to improve transit agency safety and reduce assaults on transportation workers. Pinkerton, a licensed professional engineer, said the IIJA has the potential to improve the condition of transit agencies and roads, noting shared vehicle environments can make systems safer and more efficient.

Both Pinkerton and Collie Greenwood, interim general manager of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), commended the law’s adjustment pertaining to Small Starts projects, which operate under the Capital Investment Grants Program. Specifically, the IIJA raised the threshold for Small Starts project costs from $300 million to $400 million. Greenwood mentioned MARTA’s Clayton Southlake Bus Rapid Transit project has advanced to the development phase of the Small Starts program, while Pinkerton said central Ohio’s LinkUs mobility initiative will benefit from this adjustment.

The Biden administration has been active in awarding grant money—and making funding available—to support community transit projects. On March 14, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) awarded $409 million to 70 projects in 39 states through the Grants for Buses and Bus Facilities Program. The Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 project selections include efforts to modernize buses, make bus systems and routes more reliable, and improve safety. In Central California, the San Luis Obispo Regional Transit Authority was awarded about $8.8 million to replace older diesel buses with zero-emission electric ones. Some $15 million was granted to MARTA to build a new bus and operations maintenance facility in Clayton County, while the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority received $5 million to replace its system’s oldest bus facility.

The number of applicants during this round of funding demonstrated an overwhelming interest in improving transit systems around the country. According to FTA, the agency received 303 eligible project proposals totaling approximately $2.56 billion in requested funds. Because of the infrastructure law, FTA will be able to support more projects in the next round of awards.

One week prior to announcing the $409 million in grant awards, a group of administration officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and FTA Administrator Nuria Fernandez announced the availability of $1.47 billion in grant funding to help modernize bus fleets and facilities. The funding opportunity makes available $1.1 billion in competitive grants under the FY 2022 Low or No Emission Grant Program and $372 million in FY 2022 funds under the Grants for Buses and Bus Facilities Program. The combined grant program announcement was the first FTA-related competitive grant opportunity under bipartisan infrastructure law. The deadline to submit proposals is May 31st.

Transit has received a D- grade on the two latest iterations of ASCE’s Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, the most recent of which was released in March 2021. The investment included in the IIJA can play a major role creating a positive trend and finally raising the grade for transit.

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