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2009 Transportation Bill

The Oberstar Bill: What About the Highways-Transit Split?

As transit fans and policy wonks digest the details of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar's (D-MN) new proposal, one question is coming to mind: Does it change the typical 80-20 split in the percentage of funding that goes to highways versus transit?

The short answer is, not really. While road programs got a hair less than 80 percent of highway trust fund money under the 2005 transportation bill, they will get about 75 percent of trust fund money under Oberstar's plan, according to an analysis by the subscription-only Transportation Weekly newsletter.

Transit programs, by contrast, got 18.3 percent of total funding under the 2005 bill and would receive 22.2 percent under Oberstar's proposal, Transportation Weekly found.

But the long answer is that this marginal improvement amounts to real progress. Among Oberstar's four consolidated categories of highway funding, only one focuses on building new capacity -- and that pot of money also gives states the flexibility to spend on new transit rather than new roads.

The other three highway funding categories Oberstar proposes would focus on repair of existing roads and bridges, air quality and public health improvement, and safety improvements. In addition, the House chairman also would create a dedicated program for metropolitan areas' concerns and reform the New Starts program to ensure a more comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of new transit proposals.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers and advocates are constantly confronting the tension between what's ideal and what's realistically possible. The question for some transit boosters may be whether to support Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's push for an 18-month extension of existing law, welcoming the chance for more time to promote their priorities, or whether to align with Oberstar's plan and try to challenge the administration.

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