Amid state and federal wrangling over transportation funding, transit leaders meeting in Center City said growing public support should mean more money for trains, buses, and subways.
"The people of the nation are way ahead of some of their elected leaders," Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff said Monday, citing a new survey for the American Public Transportation Association that showed 74 percent of respondents supported using tax dollars to "create, expand and improve public transportation." That was up from 69 percent last year.
In Washington and Harrisburg, lawmakers are debating how to pay for mass transit as well as highways and bridges. Transit agencies, which typically get at least half of their budgets from taxpayers, are lobbying for increases to replace outdated equipment and vehicles and to bring derelict systems into a state of good repair.
A vote is expected this week in the Pennsylvania state Senate on a transportation-funding bill that would increase the gas tax on wholesalers (who likely would pass it on to motorists at the pump), and raise most vehicle fees and fines for traffic violations. The measure would produce about $2.5 billion in additional transportation funding after three years, according to its sponsor, Senate transportation chairman John Rafferty (R., Montgomery).
Gov. Corbett has proposed a more modest measure that would increase the wholesale gas tax but not other fees. Corbett's plan would produce about $510 million in additional transportation funding in the first year and $1.8 billion a year by the end of five years.
Former Gov. Ed Rendell on Monday blamed "years of neglect" for the funding needs of transit agencies, like SEPTA. SEPTA needs about $5 billion to bring its system into a state of good repair. For the seven largest transit systems in the United States, the repair bill is about $75 billion, according to the Federal Transit Administration.
Rendell said many political leaders "have fallen prey to this ideological myth that people don't want to raise revenues" for transit. He cited the American Public Transportation Association poll and recent ballot-box victories for transit bond issues and expansions and said: "I think the tide is turning."
Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo said "rail is the mode of opportunity" as ridership grows on Amtrak and local rail systems. Amtrak, which carried 2.8 million passengers in March to set an all-time monthly record, has recorded ridership records in nine of the last 10 years but struggles annually to get federal subsidies from Congress.
Szabo said Congress should establish a dedicated fund for passenger rail, as it does for highway and aviation spending.
The transit officials said taxpayer subsidies are necessary for transit, as they are for roads and aviation, because the public benefits from reduced highway congestion, less air pollution, reduced reliance on foreign oil, and increased productivity.
"If you raise fares too much, people will get back on the roads and increase congestion," SEPTA general manager Joseph Casey said, noting that SEPTA is boosting fares July 1. "They need it to be affordable for them to get to work."
Casey said that advertising on vehicles and corporate names on subway stations also bring in much-needed revenue.
"We're doing what we can to keep prices down and not burden the taxpayer," he said.
The American Public Transportation Association is meeting at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown hotel through Wednesday.