A proposal to remove funding from the federal gas tax for public transit systems, such as those that operate in Glens Falls and Watertown, has resurfaced in the Republican presidential platform.
The proposal, which Congress previously debated in 2012, would not necessarily end federal funding of transit, but would require Congress to find a new source of revenue.
No longer funding transit through the gas tax would put consistent funding at risk and likely result in steep reductions over time as the funding would become part of annual budget debates, transit advocates have said.
Greater Glens Falls Transit receives about one-third of its budget from the federal gas tax.
Any reduction in federal funding could result in cuts to routes and could force the agency not to buy new buses, said Scott Sopczyk, director of Greater Glens Falls Transit.
Federal funding covers 80 percent of the transit system’s vehicle purchase budget.
“It would be a real challenge to even continue operation if that went away,” he said.
A national reduction in purchase of public transit vehicles would affect bus and rail car manufacturers in Plattsburgh, Garry Douglas, president of Plattsburgh North Country Chamber of Commerce, has said.
All three candidates in the 21st Congressional District race have said they oppose removing transit funding from the gas tax.
But candidates have differing views on alternative ways to meet increased needs for highway infrastructure funding, without restricting use of the gas tax.
The 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax has been the same since 1983, even as the cost of infrastructure has increased.
Democrat Mike Derrick, a retired Army colonel from Peru, in Clinton County, said the gas tax should be increased to reflect changes in highway and vehicle use since 1983, and going forward should be automatically adjusted periodically.
A 37 percent increase in the rate per gallon, or about 6.8 cents per gallon, would be necessary to keep up with inflation in highway construction and transit system costs, according to American Public Transportation Association, which advocates on behalf of public transit systems.
“I think it would be a shock to the system to go back and retroactively increase it all in one shot. But going forward we need to have a much more predictable means of resourcing our public infrastructure,” Derrick said.
Green Party candidate Matt Funiciello said he does not absolutely oppose increasing the gas tax but would prefer the whole federal transportation strategy be overhauled and a portion of defense spending redirected to transit.
“The reality is, there is money elsewhere to take care of all of this,” said Funiciello, a bread company owner and political activist from Hudson Falls.
U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro, said a comprehensive overhaul of the federal tax code and budget process is the only way to provide sufficient long-term transportation funding.
“I continue to believe that raising the gas tax, and putting more pressure on our North Country families, is not the way to reform our transportation funding system,” she said.
The GOP platform calls for removing mass transit funding from the gas tax, but not necessarily ending federal funding of transit.
“These worthwhile enterprises should be funded through other sources,” the platform states, without providing specifics.
The Republican platform proposal would redirect about $4 billion in 2017 from transit and other programs to highways, and about $100 billion over 10 years, according to The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that supports the proposal.
“These policies are all welcome steps toward refocusing the federal role on the truly interstate aspects of the nation’s transportation network,” said Michael Sargent, an analyst with The Heritage Foundation.
Richard White, president of American Public Transportation Association, the transit advocacy group, said the Republican transit proposal would make it difficult for employers to fill jobs, as nearly 60 percent of transit trips are riders commuting to work.
“This proposal would undo more than 30 years of overwhelming support for dedicated federal investment in public transit,” White said.
All three candidates in the 21st Congressional District race oppose the GOP transit proposal.
“I do not believe that excluding these important programs and projects from transportation funding will serve our North Country community well, and will continue to support them when discussing transportation and infrastructure funding,” Stefanik said.
Stefanik said she voted this session in favor of “a fully funded transportation bill,” the first in a decade.
“The broader change the Greens are looking for in general is a massive support and subsidy of public transit and creating more bicycle and pedestrian friendly walkways and roadways,” Funiciello said.
“I am of the opinion that it is a mistake simply because we can’t compartmentalize transportation infrastructure,” Derrick said.
Derrick said highway congestion would be worse without public transit.
Derrick said the scope of federal transportation funding should be expanded to include rural airports.
“There are many places in the North Country where increased air infrastructure would be very valuable when it comes to the economy,” he said.