Feds want to cut back new mass transit funds

Published in the Asbury Park Press 3/06/03

WASHINGTON -- New Jersey officials are concerned that a Bush administration proposal to revamp transit funding for all states could mean less money for several northern and central New Jersey projects in the planning stages, including the proposed $400 million Monmouth-Ocean-Middlesex rail line.

Press file photoA Conrail freight train near Freehold runs
on tracks on which passenger service could be restored
between Lakehurst and Monmouth Junction.
The project would need federal funding.

Under the budget plan released last month, local and state governments would have to pick up at least half the cost of new or expanded bus, rail and ferry service. Currently, the federal share is up to 80 percent.

Changing the formula, Federal Transit Administrator Jenna Dorn said, would "stretch the federal dollar" by allowing more communities nationwide to get money from Washington sooner for mass transit initiatives.

Had the 50 percent ceiling been in place for the past 2 1/2 years, Dorn said, there would have been an additional $650 million in federal transit aid to dole out to deserving communities. Of course, that would have meant $650 million less for those projects that were funded.

State Transportation Commissioner Jack Lettiere is afraid the Bush proposal isn't good for New Jersey.
"In the end, it would probably end up meaning less money for New Jersey, as these funds are doled out to more and more projects across the country," he said. "We're working with our congressional delegation to see if we can keep the program at 80-20, and I believe we'll be successful with that."

N.J. projects listed
For a state that gets back about 70 cents in federal aid for every $1 it sends to Washington in tax payments, New Jersey has done well in getting transit aid. For the current budget year, Congress approved nearly $130 million for two new transit projects: the Hudson-Bergen rail line and the first phase of an 8.8-mile rail line that will connect Newark with Newark Liberty International Airport and downtown Elizabeth.

The proposal to change the formula, which goes before Congress later this year, would not affect those projects because they already have grant agreements with the administration. But several other projects do not, including:

New policy criticized
Forcing communities to pay at least half the cost would not be fair, considering some projects have been in the works for years and were undertaken assuming existing federal aid formulas, said William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association, the chief trade group for the nation's mass transit systems.

In addition, mayors and county governments would more likely pursue highway projects that the federal government would continue funding at 80 percent, he said.  "We think that's a strong disincentive to consider transit," said Millar, who used to run Pittsburgh's transit system. "I can't name you a single place that will tell you it's a good policy."

Millar's solution: Find more money for transit -- a tall order at a time of tight budgets and war preparation expenses.
The formula change is the most controversial of several changes woven into the administration's $7.2 billion package for transit programs nationwide next year. It's the first installment of a six-year program that could transform the way Washington parcels out aid for public transit by in-creasing aid to rural areas and expanding the types of projects eligible for federal assistance.

About $1.5 billion of the entire package would be set aside for transit expansion projects, a $300 million increase from the current year. By increasing the money for these so-called "new starts" and capping how much could go to a single community, Dorn said, more areas would benefit.

© copyright 2003 Gannett News Service

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