What Will Trump's Infrastructure Plan Mean For Public Transit Systems?

Mar 16, 2017

KEYSTONE CROSSROADS - Each year, the American Society of Civil Engineers releases an "infrastructure report card." This year, the nation's public transportation systems earned a D-, the lowest grade of any form of infrastructure in the country. 

Credit BC Transit

These transit systems, large and small, share a $90 billion backlog of repairs, which doesn't include plans to expand or improve access to transportation. States and localities are cutting funding for improvements, kicking the can down the road with sometimes disastrous consequences. 

Pennsylvania is no exception.

The state has long chipped away at highway and transit funding to pay for the state police, though a proposal in Governor Tom Wolf's budget would change that.

The states largest public transit system, SEPTA, had to take 120 cars off the lines indefinitely last year after cracks were discovered. Considering SEPTA runs at 90 percent capacity without backup cars, this caused significant delays.  

And speaking at the American Public Transportation Association conference in Washington, D.C. this week, Altoona Metro Transit Authority General Manager Eric Wolf said smaller cities are struggling too.

"I have six buses back home that are more than 40 years old," said Wolf. "We're expected to get 12 years out of a bus. Mostly we get 18 to 20 and we stretch it that far."

How much can public transit expect from Trump?

There's a chance that the can-kicking time has passed for public transit. President Donald Trump has promised a $1 trillion dollar investment in infrastructure improvements, though he hasn't specified how much would go towards public transit. 

APTA is hoping to see at least $200 billion allocated to public transit, estimating that would create 10 million jobs in 10 years and add $800 million to the GDP over 20 years. For Altoona, Wolf is circumspect about how much of an impact that kind of funding would have. 

"I certainly hope we'll see some of that funding go to new starts for light rail, but I know most of us, including little old Altoona and apparently, big bad Chicago, will be using those funds to get our fleets and our facilities back to a state of good repair," said Wolf, echoing statements by Dorval Carter, president of the Chicago Transit Authority. 

Public transit shouldn't expect much from Congress

But with the Republican-controlled Congress involved, the federal allocation for public transit could be less than $200 billion — a lot less. The Republican platform, released last summer, includes plans to eliminate spending on public transit by narrowing the scope of spending from the Highway Trust Fund. The Highway Trust Fund is a pot of money for transportation projects funded by a federal gas tax.  

The platform says, "We propose to remove from the Highway Trust Fund programs that should not be the business of the federal government ... One fifth of its funds are spent on mass transit, an inherently local affair that serves only a small portion of the population, concentrated in six big cities."

Beyond those six big cities, though, smaller transit systems could feel the effect of cuts. 

"Many folks don't have other options," said Wolf. "If there is no bus system in Altoona, they can't get to work. They can't get to the doctors. Seniors can't get to their medical appointments, and that's a real problem even in a city as small as Altoona."

While Pennsylvania is less reliant on federal funds for public transportation than other states, a zeroed out federal budget for public transit would likely slow down necessary improvements and repairs across the state.

Wolf said he is confident it won't come to that — he hopes suburban Republicans who represent districts reliant on light rail will intervene.