Testimony by Patricia Crocker, Executive Director, Vermont Public Transportation Association
Senate Environment & Public Works Committee Field Hearing
– Vermont State House –
August 20, 2002
Senator Jeffords and members of the committee, the Vermont Public Transportation Association members include the municipal, non-profit general public and para-transit providers throughout the state of Vermont. I am the Executive Director and have been with the Association since 1995. We have been very grateful for the support and ongoing interest that you have taken in rural public transportation and we are very pleased to have the opportunity to submit written remarks for the record.
Across the nation the low level of Federal budgetary support for rural public transportation is an ongoing problem. Most unit costs of transportation, whether of personal vehicle use, highway construction and maintenance, or of public transportation services, are higher in rural areas than in cities and suburbs. Distances are greater and lower population densities suggest that utilization rates (both for highways and transit) are bound to be lower in rural areas. But that should not mean that rural businesses or resident s should not have access to markets, good and services. Federal funding formulas are unfortunately skewed in favor of urban needs.
Population-based Federal 5311 formula funds are minimal in Vermont. The lack of financial support is particularly acute in its impact on the disabled, low-wage workers (often single parents) who must not only seek job related transportation, but also work out the logistics of getting children to and from childcare, and our elder population who can no longer drive their own vehicles. Many of our citizens most in need of services and economic opportunities are dispersed into communities outside city centers where housing costs are more affordable. Thus, the need for adequate transportation that provides mobility and access to goods and services is more acute in our rural areas .
In Vermont, the Job Access and Reverse Commute funding has provided the first opportunity for expansion of services in nearly four years. The funding that you have provided in an annual earmark has been central to providing community bus service to areas previously underserved and in some cases forms the locus of service for an entire community, i.e. Middlebury. Although this initiative has targeted a need for transportation for low wageworkers, it has provided additional and expanded service that has been of benefit to the entire community, including disabled citizens and the independent elderly.
Vermont’s Federal formula appropriation for 5311 and 5310 are minimal. The 5310 program, essentially a capital program, is used in Vermont for both vehicle purchases and for the purchase of services through public transportation operations. Although the State Agency of Transportation has flexed a significant amount of funds to enhance the 5310 program, many needs continue to be unmet. And the opportunity to use funds for vehicle purchases is often passed over because neither human service nor non-profit transit organization can meet the requirement for 10% match and contracting requirements under purchase of service provisions have created some obstacles to the use federal funds.
Because the federal formula provides so little, our additional revenue is obtained through the flexible use of STP funds (one of the benefits of ISTEA and TEA 21). But this also puts all public transportation services in direct competition for the same funds that are used for roadway projects. The state public bus transportation budget for FY 2003 (excluding passenger rail) is about $13 MM dollars. This represents just 4% of the entire state transportation budget of $330 million in combined state and federal funds. Despite efforts in both ISTEA and TEA 21 to insure a multi-modal transportation infrastructure for the future, public transportation in rural areas continues to be inadequately funded. It is clear that both new funding and stronger guidance to states are needed.
We have heard it rumored that the administration is exploring the idea or intends to propose a change in the cost sharing requirements for all transit funding from the current 80/20 to 50/50. This change would have disastrous consequences for public transportation in Vermont. The requirement that either the state or local communities contribute additional resources will be next to impossible. At the state level, the demands for road maintenance and construction always eclipse transit. At the local level there is, with a few minor exceptions, no revenue source but the already over-extended property tax available for increased cost sharing.
We have also heard that legislation has or will be introduced that would provide a $5 million dollar state minimum for all 5311 programs, a $5 million dollar minimum for small urban systems (50,000 – 200,000 population) and a $1 million dollar minimum for the 5310 program and provisions that would allow the 5310 program funds to be used for operating expenses. This holds the promise of some much needed additional federal support for transit in rural states and it will certainly improve our situation in Vermont if used to enhance the current level of state funding.
A funding scheme that provides for opportunity to serve across programs and meet broader community needs rather than serve discrete groups (including coordination of services to benefit the entire community and elimination of arbitrary restrictions of services by groups such as the elderly, the disabled, TANF recipients, low wage workers, or school children) has the greatest potential for efficiently and effectively meeting demand as well as furthering the public policy objective of maximizing public investments in transportation systems.
Senator, as you are well aware, our population is aging. Federal accident statistics indicate that while safer vehicles have reduced highway fatalities, the number has risen among people over 70 by 39% during the past decade. No amount of roadway or safety improvements can protect drivers whose reactions and vision may be diminished by the natural aging process. By 2020, one in five drivers will be over the age of 65. The demands for public and para transit services increase each year. Yet, if Vermont is any indication, state public transportation budgets cannot be expected to keep pace with these needs.
In rural areas, the loss of the ability to drive means not just a loss of independence, but total isolation and the potential for earlier institutionalization. Many of our senior citizens would voluntarily (and gratefully) relinquish their driving privileges if they were offered the option to take readily available public transportation and the same holds true for individuals for whom physical or mental disability prevents them from driving a private auto. Sadly, that choice does not exist in much of rural America at this time.
It is within your power to change that picture by outlining a new scenario for public transportation options in the future. In doing so, you will improve not only the quality of life for Americans living in rural areas, but contribute to environmental protection and decreased dependence on foreign oil. By reducing the number of vehicles on our roads through expanded availability and use of public transportation you can implement the most effective strategy available for achieving significant energy savings and environmental gains without imposition of new taxes or burdensome regulations on industry.
Keys to improving public transit in rural areas are the following:
In closing, we want to again thank you Senator Jeffords and the members of your committee for this opportunity. We look forward to working with you as you proceed in the reauthorization process.
Respectfully submitted, Patricia C. Crocker, Executive Director