A group of senators led by Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., were poised late yesterday to introduce legislation that would provide public transit systems across the country with $2 billion of emergency operating funds to help ease the strain on their budgets.

The bill is to be co-sponsored by Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.,  who chairs the Senate Banking subcommittee on housing, transportation, and community development. Co-sponsors are expected to include Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.

Though the infusion of funds would be relatively small if dispersed across many local governments, transit groups said it would improve the overall finances for their sector, which has been hard hit by the recession.

A recent American Public Transportation Association survey of transit systems in the U.S. found that four out of every five systems had raised fares, cut service, or considered taking one or both of those actions during 2009.

The survey also found that more than half of the 151 transit agencies that responded to the survey had laid off employees or were considering it.

Transit agencies usually get their operating budget from state and local funds, often from sales taxes or real estate taxes, according to Mantill Williams, APTA’s director of advocacy communications.

The legislation is supported by a large coalition of transit groups.

“This should substantially prevent the worst of the service cuts,” said David Goldberg, communications director for Transportation For America, a pro-transit group that partners with state and local organizations and elected officials in most states.

“It’s obviously not going to put every agency on a sound footing from here on out. But for this year anyway, it should stave off the draconian service cuts and fare hikes,” Goldberg said.

The federal government, particularly the executive branch, is increasingly turning its attention to transit systems. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood this month announced that $775 million in federal discretionary bus and bus facility grants would be awarded in late summer.

But last week, Peter M. Rogoff, chief of the Federal Transit Administration, gave transit leaders a reality check during a stop at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, saying that “unless things change, public transit may actually hinder rather than help support the president’s goals for the environment and the economy.”

Rogoff said a federal study found an estimated funding shortfall of $78 billion to bring all 690 rail and bus systems’ assets up to a “state of good repair.” About 29% of transit assets are in poor or marginal condition, he said.

He placed some responsibility on transit supporters who favor rail, saying that 75% of the $78 billion would be needed to replace rail assets, not buses.

“Supporters of public transit must be willing to share some simple truths that folks don’t want to hear. One is this: paint is cheap, rail systems are extremely expensive,” Rogoff said. “Take that paint can and paint a designated bus lane on the street system … Some communities might be tempted to pay the extra cost for shiny new rails now. But they need to be mindful of the costs they are teeing up for future generations.”

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