New transportation bill will focus on rail, fixed guideway systems

But panelists say $1.25 million for bus replacement won't go far

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How to replace aging public transit buses is one of the questions Iowa transportation leaders could struggle with under the new MAP-21 highway funding law that takes effect today (Monday).

The law is the first long-term highway authorization bill enacted since 2005. The legislation allocates $105 billion to the Surface Transportation Program in fiscal years 2013 and 2014.

A panel of local, state and federal experts attempted to explain what the new law will mean Friday at a Transportation Advisory Group event at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids. It was a difficult task, because federal officials still haven’t released many details of how it will be administered.

News releases surrounding the new bill underscore its emphasis on simplifying and consolidating a complex array of programs, increasing transparency and accountability and supporting innovation.

Some of the changes could result in more flexibility at the local planning level, explained Adam Lindenlaub, manager of the Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization in Cedar Rapids.

But for Iowa, a big change will be the bill’s emphasis on rail and fixed guideway systems, said Kristin Haar, compliance and training officer for the Iowa Department of Transportation’s Office of Public Transit.

Haar said Iowa has no rail or fixed guideway transit systems, and would receive only about $1.25 million directly for bus replacement under the 5339 program of MAP-21. With a new transit bus costing around $400,000 and a new hybrid transit bus around $600,000, that won’t go far.

“Our (bus) fleet is not going to benefit very much under the bill,” Haar said. “We do have some decisions to make in the next few months and years.”

Under the previous federal law, SAFETEA-LU, Iowa was able to obtain about $3 million in federal highway funding to replace buses for two years in a row. In the current year, Haar said, it received no funding.

Haar said the DOT’s staff has proposed that the Iowa Transportation Commission consider reallocating about $3 million of federal funds from the state’s Clean Air Attainment fund to the Office of Transit Management to go for bus replacement. It would bring total funding for bus replacement up to about $4 million per year.

Clean Air Attainment funds have been used until now for discretionary grants to communities for projects that reduce transportation congestion and the resulting emissions, such as projects to improve traffic light synchronization in order to reduce idling times at stoplights.

Haar said the funds in most states are channeled to metro areas that are designated as air quality nonattainment areas. Iowa has none, she said, although the Quad Cities area has been “pretty darn close.”

The public transit provisions of MAP-21 also greatly increase requirements on transit system operators for safety and security, ranging from things like driver safety to the security of bus parking areas, Haar said.

Congress consolidated the Safe Routes to School program with the Transportation Enhancements Program and Recreational Trails program. It created a new program called Transportation Alternatives, which also adds new uses including environmental mitigation and boulevard construction.

Total funding for Iowa is expected to decrease about $4 million in the consolidation of the programs, panelists said.

Transportation administrators who want detailed information about how MAP-21 will affect them will just have to wait, explained Joni Roeseler, planning and program development team leader for the FTA Region VII. She said more program guidance will be available in the months ahead. A general emphasis, she said, will be fewer funds awarded on a discretionary basis in competition with other grant applicants, and more funds awarded under a formula-based criteria.

Although it comes with a learning curve, panelists said one good thing about MAP-21 is that it will provide steady, predictable transportation funding for the next two years.

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