WASHINGTON, D. C. — The Committee will come to order. I am very pleased this morning to welcome Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta. I'm glad he could be with us today. I appreciate that he and the other panelists took the time to come before the Committee.
I asked Secretary Mineta to share the details of "SAFE TEA," the Administration's proposal to reauthorize the surface transportation program. Obviously, this Committee is most interested in the transit title of the bill. The current law, TEA-21, expires on September 30th of this year and I have made transit reauthorization a high-priority item for the Committee's consideration. This is the second hearing we've had on transit at the full committee level and it won't be the last.
We had the benefit of hearing from Federal Transit Administrator Jenna Dorn on May 8th when the Committee invited her to come discuss the details of the FY 04 budget proposal for FTA. Embedded in the budget were many of the Administration's ideas for reauthorization, so the Committee got an early opportunity to digest many of the central components of the proposal. When the SAFE TEA proposal was formally conveyed to the Congress in late May – months later than it was expected, but better late than never – we were already armed with some advance information about its contents.
As such, we have had the opportunity not only to learn some of the details of the proposal, but have the chance to react to them as well. Many of you have already heard that the Ranking Member and I are opposed to reducing the federal match for new starts projects from 80% to 50% while maintaining the 80% federal share for highway projects. I believe that would be a mistake and would create an imbalance between the two modes. I think our goal should be to remain "mode-neutral" and allow communities to make decisions about what best suits their needs and maintain a level playing field.
I am most concerned, however, about the idea of eliminating the bus program. To many, bus service is the life blood of the transit system. In the majority of communities, bus grants are an invaluable resource and buses the sole mode of public transportation. Eliminating the program would be detrimental to mid-sized communities who need lump sums to make bus purchases and build bus facilities.
Another item I want to mention is the overall inadequacy of the total funding level. This is an argument that I anticipate that you'll hear from several members of this Committee. Mr. Secretary, you may be aware that the Senate passed an amendment to the Budget that would increase the overall number for highways and transit. That amendment, which was passed with the support of 79 of my colleagues, bumped up the number for transit to $56.5 billion. Certainly that vote is reflective of the growing demand and need out there for more resources. Unfortunately, the $46 billion proposed in SAFETEA doesn't address that concern. The level proposed by the President is a current services budget and, I think, is insufficient. Mr. Secretary, that gives you a thumbnail sketch of what about the proposal concerns me, so let me know move to tell you what I DO like about the Administration's bill.
I am pleased that rural transit is finally garnering the attention it deserves. I have seen value in fostering rural connectivity in communities all over the country. Currently, 40% of rural counties offer no transit service at all and increasing the opportunities to provide essential bus service in rural America is a very positive step.
I also like the idea of expanded eligibility for bus rapid transit in the new starts category. We need to have discussions about exactly how this would work in practical application, but I am favorable. The Committee will be holding a hearing on just this issue on June 24th. As it is an emerging technology that was not a viable option during the time of TEA-21's writing, I think it is especially important that we look at it now.
I am pleased that you have put a focus on fostering coordination between the providers of social service transportation. This is an area long disregarded and I think your proposal responds to a need – first identified by the GAO – to make human service coordination of transportation services a priority.
There are several other areas I think represent progress and others where the basic idea was sound, but the details may require some tweaking. I am intrigued by the idea of performance incentives for ridership increases. And I want to learn more about how you envision that working.
I'd like to make sure that there's an equal focus on building efficiencies – both in capital investments as well as operational expenses. Transit agencies should be held accountable for their cost and ridership projections for new starts projects and, certainly, transit agencies should be making the utmost effort to identify areas in need of reform that drive up the daily cost of doing business. Addressing both of these items will be useful in ensuring that transit resources are carefully spent and are spent for the benefit of those to which it is intended – the riders of public transportation.