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Public transportation gets economic boost.

Less than six months ago, the Congress overwhelmingly passed and sent to the President the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA). A few weeks later, at a highly publicized event at the site of a new highway interchange, the President signed into law a bill establishing transportation policies as differenct from prior highway/transit bills as the interstate highway system is from the trolley dominated urban transportation systems of the 40's and 50's.

Proponents of ISTEA, including the National League of Cites and the almost 200 other groups which are part of Transit NOW were elated. None of us would have dreamed that all our efforts over the preceding months would lead to a surface transportation policy with as many opportunities as those offered by ISTEA.

Perhaps most important was the prospect for investing significant new resources in our nation's public transportation. After a decade of declining federal support, reducing transit funds by 50% in its purchasing power, ISTEA authorized federal spending to grow to $5.2 billion, a major increase from the $3.8 billion appropriated for the current fiscal year.

The opportunities offered by ISTEA are enormous, providing local communicaties and the nation with the chance to reorient surface transportation decisions to consider the demands of the 21st century: revitalized urban and national economies, reduced emissions, energy efficiency, accessibility for all Americans with disabilities, and others.

But have these opportunities been seized? Is reality going to match our dreams? Only four months after the enactment of ISTEA its too early to judge absolutely, but the challenge of realizing ISTEA's opportunities seems as great as enactment of ISTEA itself. First, a month after signing ISTEA, the President offered fiscal year 1993 budget recommendations for surface transportation funding which are, in a work, awful --a retreat from many of ISTEA's promises.

[Section] The President recommended transit spending for the coming fiscal year of only $3.0 billion, a 20% reduction from 1992 spending levels. By comparison the Presidents urges a 4% increase in highway spending. Put another way the President would fund 83% of 1993 authorized highway spending, but only 57% of the funds authorized for transit.

[Section] ISTEA established an 80/20 ratio between highway and transit spending authorized for 1993. The Administration's budget proposes a ration of 86/14-- a greater disparity than in 1992 appropriations.

[Section] The President, once again, recommended eliminating transit operating assistance.

Despite the anti-transit sentiments so strongly stated in the President's budget, transit advocates have hope that Congress would allocate some of the socalled "peace dividend" to meet some of the nation's domestic needs. Another opportunity was at hand. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the virtual elimination of the military threat to the U.S. and our allies has allowed for a sifnificant reduction in defense spending. Billions of dollars a year, previously committed to national defense, could now be made available to meet our infrastructure, health care, education and other pressing needs, the common wisdom has held.

However, first come the "fire-walls." In the day and age of trillion dollar federal deficits, one does not simply shift billions in defense savings to meet domestic needs. In the fall of 1990, the Budget Enforcement Act (BEA) was created as another mechanism to bring discipline to federal spending.

As part of the BEA, so-called "fire walls" were created between defense, domestic discretionary (not entitlements), and foreign affairs spending. Within each area, caps were placed on spending; a "pay as you go" approach was adopted requiring new spending to be offset by reduction or increased taxes; and funds from one area could not be shifted to another. These fire walls were erected to segregate federal spending until fiscal year 1994 when the BEA will permit funding to be shifted between the categories of spending. Now, the billions of dollars no longer needed for defense purposes, appear to be unavailable for domestic needs, including transit. Efforts in the Congress in recent weeks to lower the fire walls have been unsuccessful, and even if they had lowered, the President was prepared to veto any such amendment to the BEA.

The likely result is that, regarding funding levels, the reality will not live up to the opportunities offered. The propect of major increases in federal transit funding seem remote in the near term. Indeed, simply securing a cost of living increase in transit funding will be a challenge. Yet, one area of continued hope is ISTEA's Surface Transportation Program and its flexible funding.

Across the nation, local transit advocacy groups affiliated with America's Coalition for Transit NOW have begun to develop. From Philadelphia to the San Francisco Bay Area, from Akron to New Orleans, local coalitions of elected officals, business leaders, environmentalists, labor unions, transit operators, people with disabilities and others have begun to work together to effect local surface transportation policies and spending.

As ISTEA's regulations take effect, and as MPO's begin to engage communities in establishing a better balance between transit and highways, the need and opportunity for broad community participation will become obvious and more important.
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Title Annotation:Special Report: Learning to Cope with New Transportation Law
Author:Fried, Bruce M.
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:May 4, 1992
Previous Article:Cities increase highway safety roles.
Next Article:Imagination and creativity are the keys to ISTEA planning.

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