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Federal funding vital to New York transit

The Long Island Rail Road has reported increased

The Long Island Rail Road has reported increased ridership and record on-time performance figures. (Jan. 23, 2012) Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

A burst of bipartisanship, a behavior too rarely seen these days in Congress, led the Senate last week to pass an eminently sensible transportation bill. That was in sharp contrast to the House of Representatives, which had proposed, but failed to pass, an ugly, anti-mass transit bill. The House must now put aside ideology and pass the Senate version. The current stopgap legislation expires soon, which will further endanger our already-crumbling national infrastructure.

The fate of this legislation is deeply important to our region. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority gets more than $1 billion a year from the Highway Trust Fund, plus about $400 million from the general fund. The trust fund is supported by the federal gas tax. Of the tax's 18.4 cents a gallon, 2.86 cents goes to mass transit -- including the MTA -- and almost all of the rest to highways. Without those funds, the MTA could not have bought new buses and subway cars and made other needed improvements to the system's infrastructure.

The late, unlamented House bill would have removed mass transit entirely from the Highway Trust Fund. For the MTA, that would have been horrific. Instead of getting its reliable $1 billion a year from the trust fund, the MTA would have had to compete with many other national priorities to achieve the same level of funding from the general fund. And it would have been so unpredictable that it would have made long-term planning much more difficult.

In contrast, the $109-billion Senate bill that passed last week, 74-22, keeps mass transit in the Highway Trust Fund. But it isn't perfect. It only lasts two years, not five. So it won't provide the same long-term planning window that a succession of five-year bills did.

The last long-term bill expired in 2009. Since then, Congress has been unable to agree on a new one. That's mostly because gas-tax revenues have dropped, due to increased fuel efficiency and other causes, and lawmakers can't figure out how to make up for that shortfall. The result has been short-term stopgap bills. The current one expires on March 31.

If the House fails to act on this issue by then, the government technically runs out of authority to collect the gas tax. That could quickly dry up federal funding for ongoing highway and transit projects. The Senate bill creates or saves a couple of million construction jobs or more. But if the House fails to pass an acceptable bill that President Barack Obama can sign, that would be a true job killer.

Unfortunately, the House Republicans' failure to pass a bill was so chaotic, and the signals emanating from the House about what comes next are so confusing, that it's far from clear what they'll do now. Some House Republicans have districts with mass transit, and they seem likely to support a reasonable bill protecting it. But some Republicans have a highly ideological approach to this issue -- such as, in the original bill, proposing to make up for the shortfall in gas-tax revenue by relying on royalties from expanded oil-drilling leases in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. At best, that's far-off and dubious revenue.

If common sense doesn't prevail by March 31, we could lose a lot of jobs and move backward, instead of forward, on fixing our infrastructure. The House must not let that happen.