Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

The perennial debate over how much federal funding should go to mass transit is raging again.

If highways and bridges took the form of a high school football jock, metro buses and subways would be that guy's annoying kid sister.

Mass transit receives 20 percent of the money placed into the highway trust fund from federal gas taxes. Its ridership is growing, particularly among texting-happy millennials, yet mass-transit advocates must repeatedly defend that relatively small share of the funding pot. They admit it can get tiresome. They even bristle at the jargon often used to refer to the measure that gives them their livelihood; journalists and lawmakers alike tend to refer to it as "the highway bill."

"This shouldn't be The Hunger Games," said Polly Trottenberg, a former Transportation Department undersecretary who is now the transportation commissioner for New York City. "There is a desire for transit all over the country."

This year, the congressional fight over transit is a small blip within the broader surface-transportation debate, which focuses almost entirely on overall funding. But the protests against federally-funded transit still exist. This means Transportation Committee ranking member Peter DeFazio must continue stating, as he has many times in the past, that he won't support a bill that cuts funding for mass transit. Chairman Bill Shuster knows this, and he has more or less agreed to keep transit funding untouched for the sake of keeping the bill bipartisan. For DeFazio, that's huge progress.

"We're not starting with, you know ... zero for transit. Bill [Shuster] is much more realistic than that," DeFazio said. "We're looking more at the traditional share that goes to transit."

Yet Shuster also needs to get the bill through committee with at least two conservative members who oppose a federal transit program—Kentucky Republican Thomas Massie and former South Carolina Republican Gov. Mark Sanford. Both Massie and Sanford have introduced legislation (with long odds of passing) to do away with the mass-transit account within the highway trust fund. Massie's would immediately repeal the mass-transit account and federal money for pedestrian and bicycle paths. Sanford's would phase out the mass-transit account over five years.

These bills agitate transit advocates. Their latest response is to hold public rallies. Earlier this month, the American Public Transportation Association organized some 350 organizations to conduct 150 nationwide events for a grassroots advocacy day dubbed "Stand Up For Transportation."

"This is a national movement, and we are not going away," said APTA Chair Phil Washington, who also is the CEO of Denver's RTD mass-transportation system. "This is our wake-up call to Congress."

"The two bills are something we take very seriously," said APTA President Michael Melaniphy. "These are horrible ideas. They are devastating to this nation."

The flare-up reflects a genuine and ongoing tension about where to put scarce federal transportation dollars. Skeptics ask whether 20 percent of nationally-gathered money should go to systems that benefit a much smaller percentage of the U.S. population. It's true that New York City would be devastated without its subway system. It covers 5,000 miles and carries 8.7 million people a day, according to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Yet outside of six major cities—New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington—just 2.4 percent of commuters use mass transit, according to Wendell Cox, a former member of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission and now a visiting fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "Transit is not a genuinely federal issue. Public funding for transit would be more appropriately provided by the states and localities," Cox argued in a recent issue brief.

This debate is taking place at a time when car-centric mobility is slowly ebbing and urban districts are becoming even bigger drivers of the U.S. economy. Large U.S. cities of 150,000 or more inhabitants generated almost 85 percent of the country's GDP in 2010, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. Economic growth in those areas has only continued since then. Around the world, the U.S. economy is considered the most urban-dependent among developed countries.

Even if city-dwellers aren't ditching their cars, they still need options to get from place to place. It's not uncommon for urban and suburban residents to rely on two or three modes of transportation to get to work, for example. That's why public-transit advocates continually repeat the word "integrated" on Capitol Hill to emphasize that the country's transportation network needs to give people lots of options—interstates, country roads, commuter rail, subways, bike paths, and sidewalks.

"We're not going to double-deck all of our roads and bridges across the country," Melaniphy said. "If we want it to work together well, it has to work together well as a system."

Last year, the liberal Public Interest Research Group released a report showing that for the first time since World War II, the automobile miles traveled by Americans had leveled off to roughly 3 trillion a year. It was sharp departure from a consistently steady upward climb since the 1940s, according to PIRG's analysis of Transportation Department data.

PIRG also found that the people who are driving the least are the youngest. Of the commuting trips taken between 2006 and 2013, car trips dropped 1.5 percent among 16- to 24-year-olds and 1.3 percent among 25- to 44-year-olds, the study says. True, that's not a huge drop, but it reflects a steady trend of young people choosing to use other modes of travel.

Veteran Republicans in Congress don't need convincing that transit is an essential component of the surface-transportation bill. Even if they don't like the mass-transit account in principle, they know the only way to get the must-pass legislation enacted is by allowing it to continue. But the newer conservative members do need convincing, APTA's Melaniphy says. He believes they have come to Washington unfamiliar with transportation issues and see transit as an easy place to cut. That means APTA feels it necessary to be on the Hill educating them each year.

"We've certainly heard from leadership that they may have had these views early on, but there is a realization that they can't take these systems for granted," Melaniphy said.

Top image: Reuters / Kevin Lamarque

This post originally appeared on National Journal, an Atlantic partner site.

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How Washington Derailed Amtrak

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