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Transportation amendment would help Iowa public transit, advocates say

Proposal would balance funding between urban and rural states

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Public transit advocates and lawmakers are pushing an amendment to a U.S. Senate transportation funding bill they say would break the stranglehold densely populated states have on public transit money.

The measure would transfer money from a seven-state high density rider program to a national bus transit competitive grant program, and reduce the grant award cap from 15 to 4 percent of project costs.

“Iowa and other states should have a chance to compete for bus funding if that’s what the state needs to help meet its transportation needs,” Iowa GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley, who is supporting the amendment, said in a statement.

Public transit advocates initially supported the Senate’s transportation proposal, but backed the amendment after changes reduced funding for buses and bus facilities in favor of rail, mainly in the Northeast.

Mark Little, general manager of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Black Hawk County and president of the Iowa Public Transit Association, said the money is needed to maintain what he described as among the oldest bus fleets in the country.

Under the current plan, Iowa would retain 2015 funding at $3.4 million for public transit, which is not enough to maintain the 35 public transit systems and 1,600 buses by the federal useful life standard, which varies by bus from 4 to 12 years, he said.

“What has happened, especially in Iowa with such an old fleet, most systems are using operating funds to update buses,” he said. “It takes away from service on the street, and it will lead, I guarantee, to service cuts, service for seniors and people trying to get to work.”

Much of the attention devoted to the transportation bill has focused on funding the Highway Trust Fund, which expires Friday, and whether lawmakers would renew the U.S. Export-Import Bank as part of negotiations.

Late Monday, the Senate voted to attach a renewal of the Export-Import Bank’s charter to a multiyear transportation funding bill.

While the bank’s charter is unrelated to transportation funding, some lawmakers believed its attachment will improve chances that a long-term funding bill would pass the Senate.

But over in the House, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said his chamber would not take up the Senate measure, adding that it should instead pass the House’s five-month extension.

The Ex-Im’s critics say the bank provides “corporate welfare” to a few giant, politically connected corporations. The bank’s backers say a full shutdown would cause widespread losses of export contracts and cost thousands of American manufacturing jobs.

Stuart Anderson, director of the planning, programming and modal division at the Iowa DOT, said the agency is closely watching Congress’ actions this week and reviewing mitigation plans in the event highway funding is not extended.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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