Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, I am Derick Berlage, a council member in Montgomery County, Maryland. Today I am representing the National Association of Counties (NaCo)*. On behalf of NaCo, I want to thank the Committee for inviting me to appear before you on the topic of the importance of the mass transit program and the reauthorization of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA).
NaCo considers the reauthorization of ISTEA to be among its top legislative priorities for 1997. Three principles guide our policy on reauthorization:
Within the context of ISTEA, our members view the extension of the mass transit program as extremely important. Counties operate or participate in the operation of over one-third of the transit systems in the nation. Federal assistance has been very important to those counties, whether they are operating rail or bus systems or a combination of the two. I should also point out to the members of this committee that the transit program is important to both urban and rural counties.
NaCo's ISTEA policy supports the reauthorization of the mass transit program in its current form. The structure of an urban capital and operating assistance formula program, the rural program, and the discretionary capital program has served county transit systems well. We urge the retention of the existing 80-20 match ratio and continuation of the direct funding link between the federal government and the local government operating the system. The strength of the mass transit program is that it allows local elected officials the decision making authority over the planning and programming of the federal funds. Parenthetically, I should mention that this is lacking in the federal highway program, which only allows local officials in certain urbanized areas decision making authority over specified federal funds.
NaCo supports an increase in the funding for the mass transit program. The investment requirements are tremendous and funding has not kept pace with the needs. One area where the funding has suffered is in operating assistance. If operating assistance is going to be cut further or eliminated as a separate category, NaCo would recommend redefining capital assistance to include what has been formerly eligible only under the operating assistance program. Local governments know what needs to be done to keep their transit systems performing at maximum efficiency. Adding flexibility to federal assistance will help us do that.
There are four major reasons why NaCo believes the congress should reaffirm and increase its commitment to the mass transit program: welfare reform, the environment, congestion, and rural mobility.
Counties across the nation are gearing up to implement the sweeping changes that will result from the new welfare reform legislation. To find out how counties are responding to make welfare reform work, NaCo recently sponsored four hearings across the nation. In Fulton County, Georgia; Hennepin/Ramsey counties, Minnesota; Santa Clara county, California; and metropolitan Dade county, Florida we heard from county and state officials, the business community, nonprofit representatives and welfare clients on how the process was working.
In the NaCo report summarizing the hearings, Making Welfare Reform Work, transportation services were identified as the most common thread that linked all counties and outpaced all other concerns as the most urgent need to make welfare reform work. We heard this from urban, suburban and rural county officials. The reauthorization of ISTEA, and in particular the mass transit program, is extremely important to the success of welfare reform.
Because of the nation's robust economy, job creation for welfare clients is less of a problem than in the past. The problem is getting people who are unlikely to have reliable transportation to the jobs or the job training program. Transit is going to be the solution for many of these people.
Due to its impact on the environment, we have to continue to offer an alternative to the automobile. Mass transit is that alternative. Many communities across the nation have recognized this and used transit to reduce the adverse affects of pollution. The federal government made a decision long ago that clean air was national concern and that failure to develop strategies to mitigate pollution would have a cost. The federal government also has recognized that contributing financially to mass transit was in the best interest of the nation's environment. NaCo urges that this commitment continue and be expanded.
Congestion on our highways consumes far too much time, energy and money. We know that transit gets people off the roads and contributes to a lessening of traffic congestion. According to a recent report entitled, Dollars and Sense: The Economic Case for Public Transportation in America, without transit we would have an extra 5 million cars and 27,000 new lane miles of roads jammed into America, along with almost 200,000 more fatalities, injuries and accidents every year. Imagine, if you can, how much worse it would be without transit. Then imagine how much worse congestion will be if Our investment does not keep pace.
Transit is not just an urban mode of transportation. More and more rural communities are providing transit to their citizens, particularly to the elderly and low income. These funds come through the section 18 program, are flexible, and work well. NaCo cares about the rural transit program, with over 2000 of America's 3000 counties being classified as rural. Transit helps keep citizens in these regions connected and enables them to remain in their communities. In particular, if welfare reform is to work in rural communities, public transit is essential. In some rural communities, welfare clients may need to commute 50 to 200 miles a day to get to a job.
Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, this concludes my testimony. If there are any questions, I would be pleased to answer them at this time or provide written responses at a later date. Once again, on behalf of NaCo, thank you for the opportunity to testify on this important subject matter.
* The National Association of Counties (NaCo) is the only national organization representing county government in the united states. Through its membership, urban, suburban and rural counties join together to build effective, responsive county government. The goals of the organization are to: improve county government; serve as the national spokesman for county government; serve as a liaison between the nation's counties and other levels of government; and achieve public understanding of the role of counties in the federal system.
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