Give ‘Em A Brake

By Tommy Purvis

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Posted February 16, 2012 in News
It only makes sense that more people will turn to public transportation when times are tough. This is especially apparent in San Bernardino. According to a recent Press-Enterprise article, Omnitrans, the county’s public transit agency, has seen a two percent increase in bus ridership for the 2010-2011 fiscal year. Established in 1976, the agency now carries over 15 million passengers a year on its buses, covering an area encompassing 480 square miles throughout the San Bernardino Valley.

But now Omnitrans says it’s facing an uphill battle, saying it could potentially lost about half of its federal funding. The agency stands in strong opposition to House Bill 3864, the federal American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Financing Act—which would eliminate dedicated federal fuel taxes that fund public transit.

Wendy Williams, Omnitrans’ director of marketing, spoke to the Weekly about this piece of legislation, and the impact this bill will have if it passes.

HB 3864 would create long-term uncertainty for public transportation funding—something that hasn’t happened in decades, she says.

Half of the nation’s public transportation funding comes from the fuel taxes that are dedicated to the Highway Trust Fund,” Williams says.

“This means that about half of the federal funding that Omnitrans receives could be in jeopardy.”

To be sure, only part of Omnitrans’ overall budget comes from federal funds.

“Federal funding is not used for operating expenditures such as labor costs, fuel, etc.,” Williams says. “We receive funding from a combination of federal, state and local sources.

“Also, our passenger fares cover about 25 percent of our operating expenses,” she adds. “Currently it costs $1.50 to ride the bus, or a full-day pass can be purchased for $4.”

Even if HB 3864 passes, there will still be enough federal funding for Omnitrans . . . until 2016, that is.

“What this would do is eliminate the current Mass Transit Account and replace it with a new Alternative Transportation Account under the federal government,” Williams said. “Meaning, they are canceling one program and replacing it with another. But, this new account comes with a one-time-only appropriation of $40 billion, which is to fund the current federal transit program in fiscal years 2013 through 2016.”

Williams also adds that the $40 billion appropriation also funds the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program, as well as several other small highway programs.

A vote on the bill is expected to happen later this month, she says. “Omnitrans is not the only organization against this bill,” Williams adds. “The proposal has also been opposed by numerous other groups including the California Transit Association, the American Public Transportation Association, Teamsters, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the League of Cities and many others.”

The timing of the bill is unfortunate, Williams says, as Omnitrans is still looking to build upon its surging ridership.

“This legislation would have dire consequences for the thousands of people in the San Bernardino Valley who rely on public transit,” she says. “Public transportation is an important part of the nation’s entire transportation system. It reduces congestion, provides access to jobs and supports private-sector jobs in communities across the country.”

“Ultimately, transit riders will suffer. The higher rates will have to be passed on to them as transit systems—like Omnitrans—would be challenged to maintain current levels of services and infrastructure with less funding.”


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