ISTEA provides for an 80% federal reimbursement for capital improvements for transit systems--acquisition of new buses or rail cars or construction of new rail lines. But it limits reimbursement for operating expenses to 50%.
"Transit operating funds is an issue for us, particularly two and three years out," Oftelie said. A coalition of California transit officials has recommended that Clinton's newly named Secretary of Transportation, Federico F. Pena, consider removing the 50% cap, at least temporarily, until the national economy improves.
Such a move, which would likely require congressional approval, would not increase total transit spending but would give local transit agencies greater authority to allocate the federal aid available to them.
On another front, Oftelie and others are looking to the new Administration for leadership in transportation research--developing high-tech solutions to the problems of people-moving.
Although ISTEA included special programs to speed development of high-speed rail transportation, electric cars and so-called "intelligent vehicles" and "smart highways," many in the transportation community questioned the Bush Administration's commitment to those projects since many were not fully funded.
"We're doing a lot of work now with technology on the freeways," said Oftelie. He said he hopes that under the Clinton Administration, the federal government will do more research. Later on, establishing traffic operations centers for surface streets could yield even greater benefits. "A real simple thing, timing and coordination of traffic lights, is very expensive and very difficult," he said. Technical improvements that would lower the cost of such work would have tremendous appeal to the public, he said.
The 1991 transportation legislation gave states and local governments much more flexibility to spend highway funds on rail and bus programs. But transportation watchdog groups have complained that the federal government's historic bias in favor of building roads over rails remains entrenched.
That attitude is shown in the funding levels of the new legislation, they say. While the law authorized $20.4 billion for highways and $5.4 billion for mass transit in the fiscal year that began last Oct. 1, Congress actually appropriated only 88% of the authorized money for roads and 70% for transit.
If transportation spending rises under the Clinton Administration, Orange County officials say they certainly would not turn down millions in new federal aid to begin work on the light rail system. Nor would they refuse money to help build the planned, $800-million San Joaquin Hills toll road.