As Congress tackles economic stimulus proposals today, a coalition of business, environmental and transit advocates complained that mass transit was being shortchanged.
The current $825 billion plan in the House proposes to spend $30 billion on highways, $9 billion on public transportation, and $1.1 billion on Amtrak and intercity passenger rail. In total, the Democrat-sponsored package contains $550 billion in spending initiatives and $275 billion in tax cuts.
An alliance of Northeastern business groups, chaired by former Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker, joined the call for more transit funding, urging Democratic leaders to double the funding for transit and increasing the amount for Amtrak by 50 percent.
"By increasing funding for transit, we can put people to work building infrastructure systems that are critical to our economic success, promoting long-term economic competitiveness, and at the same time meet regional, national and global energy and climate goals," Schweiker said in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) and Rep. David R. Obey (D., Wis.), the Appropriations Committee chairman.
Schweiker, who is president of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, is chairman of the Business Alliance for Northeast Mobility, a group of more than 30 chambers of commerce and civic organizations from Richmond, Va., to Portland, Maine.
The vice chairman of the alliance, Robert Yaro, a University of Pennsylvania planning professor and president of the Regional Plan Association in New York, called the current proposal for transit spending "a drop in the bucket."
The business alliance urged Pelosi and Obey to boost transit funding to $15 billion to $20 billion and Amtrak funding to "at least $1.5 billion."
The American Public Transportation Association has identified $50 billion worth of transit projects that could be included in the stimulus package, including 787 projects worth $15.9 billion that would be ready to go within 90 days. The group said those 787 projects would create 440,000 jobs.
In the Philadelphia region, SEPTA has a $480 million list of projects it would like to tackle, including $175 million worth that it says could be started within 120 days of funding.
The area projects include reconstructing the Fox Chase train station, upgrading stations along the Chestnut Hill West rail line, improving lighting in the Center City commuter tunnel, renovating restrooms at the 69th Street Terminal in Upper Darby, and improving electrical substations and maintenance shops.
Without an infusion of federal money for transit projects, Yaro said, regional transit agencies "will be cutting, rather than adding . . . and we'll do a lot of damage to our economy." He said that workers were increasingly dependent on transit to get to jobs during tough economic times.
As Democrats pushed to have a stimulus plan approved by mid-February, opponents argued that the spending would not create jobs or improve productivity.
Nathan Benefield, director of policy research for the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank in Harrisburg, said that stimulus funding for transit, highways, and other infrastructure projects would take money from taxpayers without giving them an economic boost in return.
In Washington, the Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday began markup of its version of the stimulus bill, which includes $27 billion for highway spending, $8.4 billion for transit, $1.1 billion for rail transportation, and $5.5 billion for competitive grants to state and local governments for surface transportation spending.
Transit advocates acknowledged that they were fighting an uphill battle in their efforts to increase transit spending in the stimulus measure.
Michael Replogle, a civil engineer who is transportation director for the Environmental Defense Fund, said that "many people are concerned that we need to increase the amount of money being spent on transit, but whether that will happen depends on politics. The leadership wants to seriously limit amendments."