Editorial: Keep up support for transit

A Long Island Rail Road conductor checking the A Long Island Rail Road conductor checking the doors before the train leaves the Stony Brook LIRR station on April 15, 2011 Photo Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Despite decades of consistent, reliable federal support for mass transit, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives is trying to pass a transportation bill that would break that commitment. That would be catastrophic for our region, for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and for its suppliers upstate.

The MTA counts on more than $1 billion a year from the Highway Trust Fund, supported by the federal gas tax, plus $400 million from the general fund. The general fund money, subject to budgetary ups-and-downs, supports such large projects as East Side Access for the Long Island Rail Road. The trust fund money, safe from budget wars, has enabled the MTA to buy new buses and subway cars and to make improvements to tracks, signals and other key elements of the system.

This enduring partnership with Washington has been bipartisan. Three decades ago, President Ronald Reagan thought enough of the importance of highways and mass transportation to sign legislation that actually raised the gasoline tax by a nickel, from 4 to 9 cents. Of that nickel, one penny was to go to mass transit and four to highways.

The last time it was increased was in 1993, to its current level of 18.4 cents a gallon of gas. Of that, 2.86 cents goes to mass transit and the rest to highways. But increased fuel efficiency and other factors have reduced what the tax brings in. Inability to make up for that lost revenue -- due largely to an unwillingness to emulate Reagan and raise the gas levy -- has kept Congress from adopting a reliable five-year bill to replace the one that expired in 2009. Instead, it has adopted stopgap bills, which make long-term planning harder. The latest expires March 31.

The House GOP solution to the shortfall is to kick mass transit out of the Highway Trust Fund. So the MTA would have to seek all its federal money from the general fund, with no guarantees in any given year. That would endanger both regular system upgrades and big projects.

The House would also fill the trust-fund gap with royalties from increased oil-drilling leases, such as in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. Given how long it would take for the leases to come on line, plus the history of some oil companies not always paying royalties, this is deeply dopey. The bill is full of other cockamamie ideas. They include curtailing environmental reviews and ending a program of safer streets for pedestrians and cyclists. So, to sum up: Bad on transit. Bad on safety. Bad on the environment. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former GOP member of the House, called it "the worst transportation bill I've ever seen during 35 years of public service."

The Senate bill stands in sharp contrast to the ideological House bill. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the chairwoman and ranking minority member of the Environment and Public Works Committee -- political opposites -- agreed on it. The Senate bill, to be debated this week, keeps mass transit in the trust fund and avoids fiscal trickery. It's a two-year bill, and a five-year bill would be better, but it's clearly preferable to the House approach.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) may not have the votes this week; some of his members represent mass-transit areas. Fine by us. It's better that the House start again and pass a bill as sensible as the Senate's.

You also may be interested in: