Transit leaders worry about accessing new IIJA funds, other system concerns in Senate hearing

Transit agency leaders gave praise and raised concerns surrounding the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law during a U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs hearing last week.

“Simply put, the historic increases in federal transit funding are essential and are making a huge impact in Greater Cleveland,” said India Birdsong Terry, general manager and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority in her testimony.

James Keel, director of public transportation for the Greenville Transit Authority in Greenville, South Carolina, said in testimony before the committee that the increase in “formula funds in the bipartisan infrastructure law are greatly appreciated and provided small transit agencies such as GTA with much-needed relief.” He added, however, “The federal government does a tremendous job supporting both rural and large transit agencies, but please do not forget those of us ‘in the middle.’”

GTA operates 12 fixed bus routes across a 94-square-mile area and has seen a “quick recovery and expansion of ridership” due to the essential workers it serves, he said. Interest in public transit has grown, he said during questioning, “and it really is being driven by industry and manufacturers in our state who have begun asking or demanding more public transit to get their workers to work.”

The GTA has purchased nine battery-electric buses and is committed to a transition to alternative fuels, according to his prepared statement. But Keel said during questioning that the “challenge that we face with a lot of the battery-electric technology is that it works good as long as all conditions are normal.” He explained that South Carolina is subject to hurricanes, and the limited range of electric buses would make them unsuitable for evacuation purposes.

Keel also expressed frustration about the availability of federal funds and the stringent requirements for competitive grants. “My concerns regarding the fate of competitive discretionary funding and smaller agencies’ ability to access them are very real,” he said, explaining that the demand for such grants far exceeds the available funds. 

Like many transit agencies, “GTA has seen a significant increase in the number of individuals experiencing mental illness and/or homelessness since the pandemic,” Keel said. “This is outside of our wheelhouse, as we are transportation professionals and are not equipped to provide potential riders with the mental health care they may need.”

Terry explained how her agency is tackling the problem. The agency added a transit ambassador program that includes 10 ambassadors and six crisis intervention specialists, in addition to assigning officers to community policing. “These social service professionals work in close partnership with social service agencies to address the needs of our most vulnerable customers,” she said.

“Workforce transportation is the issue, and public transit is a solution,” Keel said. 

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