WASHINGTON (KSNT) – A federal infrastructure bill holdup is delaying improvements to the Topeka Metro, according to the bus system’s manager.
Congress members disagree on how to pay for the bill, according to Rob Scott, Senior Economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.
“The problem has been a reluctance to spend, a reluctance to tax, a desire to prioritize tax-cutting over all other priorities,” Scott said.
The bill contains funding that would help get new busses rolling around Kansas’ capital city, according to Topeka Metro General Manager Robert Nugent. The bus system has to replace 26 of its vehicles in the next five years, and a current earmark request from Kansas’ 2nd Congressional Rep. Jake LaTurner would provide funding to replace seven busses.
He said the urgency for funding is not as strong for Topeka Metro as it is in other places, but additional funding would replace the older busses and avoid negative impacts.
“It would be the same as us with our car,” Nugent said. “If we had [an old car] and we were going to try and keep it on the road another 10 years, the parts get more expensive, it gets harder to work on, it breaks down more often, it starts eating away at your ability to provide a service to those that have made life decisions based on what transit can do for them.”
Nugent said in the past 10 years without earmarks, Topeka Metro and other small providers have had to get creative with their budgets.
“We were taking money and putting it in a depreciation fund so we would have dollars if we couldn’t get federal dollars to replace our busses,” Nugent said. “Over the past 10 years, we have struggled at times with keeping service on the street because we were having to put money away to buy that new car or new bus.”
This isn’t the first time the bus service has run into funding issues. In 2018, the Topeka Metro asked the Topeka City Council to increase their mill levy, which would add over $1 million to its budget.
New federal funding is depending on this bill, but Topeka Metro also received $6.5 million in federal pandemic relief for its workers and lost revenue from COVD-19. An Amalgamated Transit Union official told KSNT News a large portion of that CARES Act money went to increased pay and hazard pay bonuses for Topeka Metro’s bus drivers, cleaners and mechanics.
While Topeka Metro received CARES Act money for a reported lack of riders, Nugent also explained that during the pandemic the bus service had a higher population of full-time riders than larger transits. He said ridership was at 70% compared to normal versus 50% in other locations.
“If we didn’t have funding for busses, then we would have a hard time even changing our service,” Nugent said. “We wouldn’t be nimble enough to really change our service and be able to adapt to a changing world in which we live today.”
Michele Nellenbach, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C, said that voters could potentially speed up progress. She said more voters should be calling their representatives.
“There’s not enough people out there telling them to come together and pass legislation, and that’s what their job is,” Nellenbach said.