Public transit advocates were almost nowhere to be found when the Senate debated climate change back in 2003. But today, transit agencies and their allies are among many new players jumping into the climate debate, as the stakes grow higher, and the prospective benefits — a cleaner world and cold cash — grow clearer.
An analysis by the Center for Public Integrity shows that last year at least 25 transit groups, cities, and counties engaged in climate lobbying focused on public transit.
Measures to reduce transportation emissions are a growing part of the climate change debate on Capitol Hill. “Between  and now I think what you saw was a clearer understanding of transit’s role in reducing greenhouse gases,” said Paul Dean, director of government relations at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). “We began to get some traction in the latest debate [in 2008].”
Environmental Protection Agency figures show that the transportation sector — cars and trucks, mostly — accounts for 28 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. So any climate change legislation will probably aim to get people out of their cars and on to mass transit, be it trains, light rail, or even buses.
But close observers of the debate say transit advocates are concerned not just with doing good, but with doing well. Under the “cap-and-trade” concept at the core of most legislative proposals, the federal government would raise billions in revenue by selling emissions “permits” to private companies; some of those billions would then be doled out to projects that could reduce greenhouse gases, such as mass transit projects.
Last year, the transportation association jumped into the fray; the APTA wanted ten percent of emissions permit revenues from the bill introduced by Senators Joe Lieberman and John Warner to be split between direct public transportation spending and a separate fund targeting projects that promote mobility and decrease emissions through a mix of transit and smart growth initiatives. What APTA got initially was one percent directly for transit, but that at least got mass transit into the game. Then, as the bill moved forward, Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, authored language nearly tripling the direct transit share by 2018, which over the life of the bill could have raised an estimated $171 billion for public transportation. Ultimately, the legislation died in the Senate. But, says association executive Dean, “I think that starting from zero, we were able to make a very strong case in a very short time.”
Others made a similar case on behalf of individual cities, counties, and transit agencies. The Utah Transit Authority, for instance, paid James C. Barker, former chief of staff to that state’s Senator Bob Bennett, $200,000 last year to lobby on issues including cap-and-trade revenues for transit. Heavyweight lobbying firm Patton Boggs represented San Diego, San Jose, and King County, Washington, in similar quests.
Public transportation agencies are now lobbying for a share of the hundreds of billions in revenues that could be available from climate legislation.Public transit advocates have found new allies among the environmental community, though the environmentalists want transit funding tied to actual performance goals — like proving that transit grants actually reduce the numbers of miles driven by cars, for instance. “I think the approach which is tied to performance is far more likely to bear fruit in producing reduced greenhouse emissions than simply throwing more money at transportation,” said Michael Replogle, transportation director at the Environmental Defense Fund. “If all we do is throw more money at public transportation, there’s no guarantee that states and local jurisdictions won’t simply reduce their own contributions to transit.”
Along those lines, last fall Senator Thomas Carper, a Delaware Democrat, introduced companion legislation to the climate bill, known as the Clean Low-Emissions Affordable New Transportation Equity Act (CLEAN-TEA). It would have designated a tenth of emissions permit revenues toward transportation and land use projects proven to reduce emissions. Though the American Highway Users Alliance (which represents both motorists and businesses) calls road funding a better way to reduce congestion-based emissions, Carper’s measure gained new support this year after going nowhere in 2008. With a few new wrinkles, sponsors plan to soon reintroduce the measure in both chambers of Congress with bipartisan cosponsorship.
“The transportation industry is starting to realize that the climate bill is a potential source of funding,” said a spokeswoman for Representative Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat who will co-sponsor CLEAN-TEA in the House. “But they are also starting to realize that they’ll need to demonstrate their ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to access this money.”
Matthew Lewis is a staff writer at the Center for Public Integrity.