Urban Mass Transportation Acts

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Urban Mass Transportation Acts

William S. Morrow, Jr.

The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 (referred to here as the Act) (P. L. 88-365, 78 Stat. 302) ushered in the modern era of financing mass transportation research, planning, and operations in the United States principally through federal grants and loans. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Act into law in 1964 as part of his Great Society programs. However, it was a speech to Congress in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy that provided the impetus for federal participation in local transportation funding. In that speech President Kennedy articulated the need for federal financial assistance in fostering urban development and renewal through the planning and implementation of regional mass transportation systems across the country.


The act authorized grants and loans to assist states and local public bodies and agencies in financing mass transportation capital project costs, specifically including "the acquisition, construction, reconstruction, and improvement of facilities and equipment for use ... in mass transportation service in urban areas and in coordinating such service with highway and other transportation in such areas." The act authorized $375 million for a threeyear period, fiscal year (FY) 1965 through FY1967. By 1998 total authorizations had increased to $41 billion for the six years, FY1998 through FY2003, with $36 billion guaranteed (Federal Transit Act of 1998).

Individual grants were limited to two-thirds of a project's net cost, defined as that portion of a project's total cost the administrator estimated could not be reasonably financed from project revenues. The individual limit was later raised to 80 percent of net project cost by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1973.

Section 13(c) of the act required state and local governments to make arrangements to preserve transit workers exercising collective-bargaining rights as a condition of receiving federal assistance in acquiring a privately owned transit company. The Supreme Court later held that this part of the act did not create a federal cause of action. Rather, Congress intended that collective-bargaining agreements between federal aid recipients and transit unions would be governed by state law applied in state courts (Jackson Transit Auth. v. Local Div. 1285, Amalgamated Transit Union, 1982).

Primary responsibility for administering the act was transferred to the secretary of transportation in 1968 according to a plan of reorganization. This plan created the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA) within the Department of Transportation and authorized the secretary to delegate his responsibilities under the act to the UMTA administrator (Reorganization Plan No. 2, 82 Stat. 1369, 1968).


The Urban Mass Transportation Assistance Act of 1970 (UMTAA) added acquisition of real property to the list of qualified uses of federal funds and authorized the secretary to incur obligations on behalf of the United States to finance grants and loans made under the act. UMTAA also mandated that planners prepare environmental impact analyses, hold public hearings, and make "special efforts" to accommodate the elderly and handicapped.

The National Mass Transportation Assistance Act of 1974 added a provision requiring transit systems to charge elderly and handicapped persons half-fares during off-peak hours. It also authorized states and localities to use up to one-half of funds received under the act to defray transit system operating expenses.

The Federal Public Transportation Act of 1978 expanded the authorized uses of funds received under the act to include capital and operating assistance for fixed rail projects, empowered the secretary to convert preexisting loans into grants, and established the creation of "metropolitan planning organizations" (MPOs).

The Reagan Administration sent tremors through the public transit industry in 1982 when it proposed eliminating financial assistance for transit system operating expenses. President Reagan ultimately approved legislation in early 1983 authorizing assistance for both operating expenses and capital expenditures through a program of block grants. However, the percentage of funds available for spending on operating expenses was capped at 80 to 95 percent of preexisting funding levels, depending on the size of the population served by the project (Federal Public Transportation Act of 1982).

Congress later increased the cap on financial assistance for operating expenses by 32.2 percent for urban areas with populations of less than 200,000, over the veto of President Reagan (Federal Mass Transportation Act of 1987 [FMTA]). The FMTA also included a provision authorizing future increases in the cap for such areas based on changes in the Consumer Price Index and, for all urban areas, excluded from the calculation of net project cost advertising and concession revenue in excess of 1985 levels.

The name of the agency was changed to the Federal Transit Administration in 1991, and references to the "Urban Mass Transportation Act" were changed to the "Federal Transit Act" (Federal Transit Act Amendments of 1991). MPOs were given more authority but also more responsibility in project planning. Each MPO was now required to develop and periodically update a long-range plan taking into account project finances, land use, air quality, traffic congestion, and other related factors, as well a Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) containing a prioritized list of projects.

The Federal Transit Act Amendments of 1998 introduced a clean fuel grant program. This program encourages the purchasing or leasing of clean-fuel buses and facilities. Permissible uses of federal funds were expanded to include spending on preventive maintenance, nonfixed route (or door-to-door) paratransit service (for passengers with some physical or mental disability), equipment and facilities leases, safety equipment and facilities, and community facilities such as daycare and healthcare. However, urban areas with populations of 200,000 or more were no longer permitted to use federal dollars to help defray operating expenses. The operating expense spending limitations were lifted, on the other hand, for urban areas with populations of less than 200,000.

The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 is one of the few Great Society programs of President Johnson to enjoy broad bipartisan support over the years. It is emblematic of the spending programs Americans have come to expect from the federal government. Public transit has its share of problems, but without the massive federal assistance these transportation systems receive every year, those problems would be magnified beyond recognition. The country's transportation systems would scarcely resemble those in existence today, and in some areas of the country might not even exist.


Federal Transit Authority. "Mass Transportation: A Bibliography for Students." <http://www.fta.dot.gov/transcity/sch/bibliography.html>.

"Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century: A Summary." Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation, 1998. Available online at <http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/tea21/sumcov.htm>.

Weiner, Edward. "Urban Transportation Planning in the United States: An Historical Overview," 5th ed. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999. Available online at <http://tmip.fhwa.dot.gov/clearinghouse/docs/utp>.

President John F. Kennedy:

To conserve and enhance values in existing urban areas is essential. But at least as important are steps to promote economic efficiency and livability in areas of future development. Our national welfare therefore requires the provision of good urban transportation, with the properly balanced use of private vehicles and modern mass transport to help shape as well as serve urban growth.