CTC: Legislature once again kicks the can down the road regarding RIPTA funding

This post is republished from the Coalition for Transportation Choices (CTC). The CTC calls for a 21st century transportation system that enhances our economy and provides all Rhode Islanders with healthy transportation choices. Grow Smart RI is a member of the Coalition.

Hopes for a sustainable funding system for Rhode Island’s public transportation system received two big blows last week. The first was when House leadership proposed a budget that does nothing to address RIPTA’s long-term funding problems. The second was when the Senate Study Commission on Sustainable Transportation Funding released a set of recommendations that fail to address the immediate need for sustainable funding.

It’s safe to say that RIPTA will again be running into cash flow problems as early as December and may be forced to make draconian service cuts absent an emergency action by the General Assembly

The bottom line is that – despite overwhelming public support and dire warnings about the state’s public transportation system – neither the House nor Senate leadership appear prepared to advance meaningful transit funding reform this year. It’s safe to say that RIPTA will again be running into cash flow problems as early as December and may be forced to make draconian service cuts absent an emergency action by the General Assembly (RIPTA is facing a predictable $9 million deficit for FY 2013).

No long-term funding plan in House budget

On May 31, the Rhode Island House Leadership released its $8.1 billion 2013 budget, which includes a one-time allocation of $4.2 million for RIPTA. The allocation will allow RIPTA to make the 20 percent match it needs to obtain federal funds to purchase buses through its fiscal year 2017. While this funding would negate the need for RIPTA to bond — essentially borrow — this amount through a 2012 referendum, a CTC analysis and review of the budget found no other funding or provisions to address RIPTA’s structural budget deficit.

Said CTC Co-chair John Flaherty of Grow Smart Rhode Island:

“This budget does nothing to address RIPTA’s chronic and unsustainable funding dilemma. We’re deeply disappointed that the House leadership budget fails to recognize the important role that mass transit plays in building a strong and vibrant 21st century Rhode Island economy. Particularly discouraging is that a comprehensive transportation funding reform solution was proposed in the Public Transit Investment Act put forward by Rep. Jay O’Grady, and it had broad support throughout the community.

“Absent such a plan, the state will continue on the path of a penny-wise and pound-foolish approach to our state’s transportation system. CTC believes that this budget will end up requiring an emergency supplemental appropriation to avoid transit service cuts by the fall. Otherwise, RIPTA will have no option but to cut service, which will cause people to lose access to jobs. It’s that simple.”

The full House is expected to vote on the budget on Thursday, June 7th. It then goes to the Senate for approval before being presented to the Governor for his signature.

Not this year, but next next year

The Senate Study Commission on Sustainable Transportation Funding met on Friday, June 1, for what may prove to be the its last meeting for this legislative session. CTC’s co-chair Jerry Elmer is a member of the Study Commission. The chairmen of the Senate Study Commission on Sustainable Transportation — State Sens. Louis DiPalma and Juan Pichardo — handed out a one-page executive summary of the Commission’s findings regarding the State Budget constraints and RIPTA’s challenges.

The Commission approved four separate recommendations; each separate recommendation was approved by a vote of 9 members in favor, 1 member opposed. All four recommendations were deeply disappointing. Unfortunately, the gist of all four recommendations is that the Study Commission recommends waiting until after RIPTA completes its anticipated Comprehensive Operations Assessment (COA) before it (the Study Commission) recommends any new, significant, sustainable funding for RIPTA. The CTC does not believe that the COA will contribute anything meaningful to the funding reform question.

The fourth recommendation sums up the gist of all four: “Upon completion of the COA and pricing analysis [that is, zone fares], develop a comprehensive, sustainable funding approach for inclusion in the FY 2014 budget.”

The recommendations are:

  1. In the short term, for the FY13 budget, include funding to begin addressing RIPTA’s debt service, working to repay any future debt over a term aligning with the useful life of the asset.
  2. Include Senate and House participation on the Technical Advisory Committee for RIPTA’s Comprehensive Operational Analysis (COA).
  3. In parallel with the COA, conduct a pricing structure analysis.
  4. In the long term, and upon completion of the COA and pricing structure analysis, develop a comprehensive sustainable funding approach for inclusion on the FY 13 and/or FY 14 budget.

Despite being formed in 2011 to pave the way for a new transportation trust fund, the Commission’s four recommendations did nothing to address RIPTA’s long-term funding problems. CTC’s Elmer, was the sole Study Commission member to oppose the four recommendations.

He explained that there is no reason to wait until after the COA is done to recommend new, sustainable funding for RIPTA, because the COA will not provide any relevant, new information. We know why RIPTA experiences perennial budget shortfalls — it is due to declining yield on the gas tax, and rising diesel prices; the COA will not add any new, relevant information. We also know the options for new funding; again, the COA will not add any new, relevant information. Jerry repeated his recommendation that the Senate Study Commission endorse the O’Grady Bill, H-7581, that would provide a new, sustainable funding stream to RIPTA.

Elmer voted against each of the recommendations based on the rationale that development of a sustainable funding approach should not be any further delayed and that the COA will not provide any meaningful information that will inform the development of such a funding approach. Elmer proposed a 5th recommendation that the Commission should reconvene to get an update on the COA. The recommendation was amended and unanimously approved. The CTC will push for this Commission meeting as early as September.

Elmer reminded the Commission that this is exactly the same message that we heard last year “not this year, but next.”

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