Declaring a victory for urbanized states, Sen. Alfonse D'Amato and Senate leaders said Thursday they had agreed on a plan to increase federal spending on mass transit by $5 billion over the next five years.
The Senate is expected to pass the plan as part of its massive transportation bill. It is almost certain to be accepted in some form by the House, where support for mass transit is substantially stronger than in the Senate. And the White House has said it wants to increase federal aid for buses and subways.Thursday's announcement marked a surprising reversal of fortune, since Senate leaders just days ago had brokered a plan to increase spending on highways by $26 billion over six years, without providing a dime extra for buses, subways, light-rail mass transit and commuter trains.
The $5 billion increase brings total proposed spending for transit over the next six years to more than $41 billion.
Utah transportation officials said that's definitely good news, although they caution nothing is certain and agreement on a new transportation package is months away.
"This may be move 22 in a game that's going on, but it's not the last move, either," said Mick Crandall, program director for the Wasatch Front Regional Council, which directs transportation planning for much of urban Utah.
"There's a lot still to be done, so I don't think any of us on this side are going to do too much celebrating yet. But it's not bad news if you're John Inglish."
Inglish is general manager of the Utah Transit Authority, which is building a 15-mile, $312 million light-rail mass transit system with an 80-percent federal share. Most of that money has been allocated and spent.
But Inglish, who was on the phone to Washington Friday morning, said his understanding of the Senate amendment is that it would obligate an additional $400 million for new transit projects over the next six years, increasing new-start funding from $800 million to $1.2 billion.
That's important because UTA has two new projects it would like to begin - a 10.9-mile, east-west extension for light rail, and a commuter rail train network between Brigham City and Payson.
"It enhances our ability to get that money and do those projects," Inglish said. "It's a clear signal of support for transit . . . This seems to be going in the right direction."
Even though UTA would be competing for the new-start money with transit agencies across the country, Inglish said there would be about twice as much money available compared to the last six-year transportation bill. But that's assuming the Senate amendment isn't changed before a final bill is passed.
House Democrats, meanwhile, said the Senate plan does not protect the proposed transit money from annual budget fights where the funds could be cut.