Billions of dollars, but none for us?

Frank Di Giacomo, Publisher
Posted on April 1, 2003

I recently spent several days in Washington, D.C., attending the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) annual legislative conference. The focal point of this year’s meeting, as it was at last year’s, was the reauthorization of TEA 21 (Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century), the federal legislation that divvies up billions of dollars in funding for public transit and highway projects.

In case you didn’t know, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) will provide more than $7 billion in fiscal year 2003 to transit agencies for the replacement of buses and railcars, the upgrade of transit infrastructure, the development of fixed-guideway projects such as light rail lines and public transportation research, among other things.

Because this massive reauthorization legislation covers six years (FY 2004 to 2009), transit agencies and industry suppliers are vigorously lobbying their representatives on Capitol Hill. As you might expect, their efforts are aimed at significantly increasing guaranteed funding levels, a tough charter given the continuing economic weakness and the war clouds in the Middle East.

But don’t bet against the transit industry. It’s got a powerful ally in APTA, which has mounted a sophisticated lobbying effort that includes a substantial investment in print and TV advertising.

Can we get a share?
So what’s the tie-in to school buses? There has been some discussion within the pupil transportation industry of trying to grab a share of the funding in the reauthorization of TEA 21. There’s certainly a dire need. With state and local governments struggling with revenue shortfalls, school districts could use every cent they can get to relieve the budget pressures on their transportation programs.

It’s late in the game, however. Even if the reauthorization doesn’t take place until next year, which is a possibility even though it’s scheduled for 2003, the pupil transportation community would need to develop a unified plan and find some champions on Capitol Hill.

To that end, the National School Transportation Association (NSTA), which represents the school bus contractor industry, has created a plan for TEA 21 reauthorization. In addition to employing a lobbyist and distributing a white paper to congressional staff, NSTA is launching a grassroots campaign to influence lawmakers through a combination of phone, fax and e-mail communication. This sounds promising.

Exactly how this effort will be converted into significant federal investment in our industry is still uncertain. That’s not to say, however, that obtaining funding through the reauthorization is out of the question. It’s possible that some funding could be obtained to improve the security of school transportation. The motorcoach industry is pushing for millions of federal dollars to upgrade their anti-terrorist programs. Why shouldn’t school transportation be given the same consideration?

Let’s look for opportunities
Are there other funding opportunities? Certainly. We shouldn’t discount the possibility that funding could be made available for capital replacement projects, especially with the EPA pushing for the replacement of older, higher-polluting school buses.

The school bus industry needs to align its message to Congress through organizations such as the NSTA, the National Association for Pupil Transportation and the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (and its Supplier Council). The next stop would be Capitol Hill.

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