By Philip Newswanger
Norfolk's light rail system, The Tide, is idled for two days. Bus hours are cut. Routes are eliminated. The ferry between Norfolk and Portsmouth is stopped indefinitely. And fares rise 30 percent.
These are real possibilities, given efforts by Republians in the U.S. House of Representatives to gut
a mass transit earmark.
Funding cuts are still a possibility if the House doesn't reach a compromise on parts of HR 7, the American Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act of 2012.
The major issue is the elimination of the Mass Transit Account, which is a dedicated stream of funding for transit authorities.
The House has delayed a full vote on the bill because of opposition.
Opponents of the cut in the funding account said the change would jeopardize millions for bus and rail service nationally, including service in Hampton Roads.
House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Florida, said in a Washington Post article, "I think mass transit shafted themselves."
He said the bill's promise to provide transit money from other sources for five years was a better bet for transit than continuing to rely on revenue from the Highway Trust Fund.
House Republicans, bent on cutting costs, tried to ram the bill through the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
The bill would have shifted 2.86 cents in fuel taxes from the Mass Transit Account to highway programs and created an Alternative Transportation Fund dependent on appropriations.
The bill would have required a one-time transfer of $40 billion into the new fund, jeopardizing funding for mass transit programs after the government's 2016 budget ended.
"Bottom line is if this money disappears, either the state or local municipalities would have to make up the difference," said Ray Amoruso, chief planning and development officer for Hampton Roads Transit, the region's mass transit authority. "Otherwise we would have drastic service cuts."
The regional transit authority receives 15 to 20 percent from fares while the rest of its budget is funded by the federal and state governments.
If passed with the proposed elimination of the Mass Transit Account, the bill would jeopardize $26.7 million HRT receives from the government every year, Amoruso said.
"HR 7 is still waiting to be brought to the House floor while details are being worked out," Amoruso said.
"There has been significant outcry, but outcomes are yet to be determined," Amoruso said. "The long-term stability and solvency of the Transportation Trust Fund is a major ongoing concern, and this includes the future of the Mass Transit Fund."
Eight members of the House are pushing for an amendment to restore the Mass Transit Account in the bill, as well as the dedicated funding.
"There is no reason to make such a drastic change in how we finance public transportation," reads a letter sent from the six congressional representatives to House members.
"Our amendment conforms to 30 years of federal law. It is a simple, common sense measure to restore the status quo."
The letter was signed by three Democrats - Jerrold Nadler, Joseph Crowley and Charles Rangel, and three Republicans - Chris Gibson, Robert Turner and Michael Grimm, representing portions of New York, along with Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, and Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio.
The change would affect services in Hampton Roads.
"Eliminating the dedicated fuel tax funding for public transit would have a potentially devastating effect on the level and quality of transit services in Hampton Roads," Amoruso said.
Dwight Farmer, executive director of the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, puts the transportation problem into perspective.
"My frustration is that we have no national transportation program," Farmer said.
"Our infrastructure is crumbling underneath our feet and gas prices are going through the roof, and we haven't had a new transportation bill in three years."
"Everyone wants to contain costs," Amoruso said. "But everyone wants what they want."nib