Sen. Pat Toomey looms large over Senate transport bill

Jessica Wehrman
Cq-Roll Call
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., has been increasingly critical of the heavy federal investment in transit, arguing that the federal government has dumped dollars on systems but not demanded any reforms.

WASHINGTON — The fate of the Senate’s surface transportation reauthorization bill might lie in part in the hands of a retiring Republican senator who has emerged as one of Congress’ most outspoken critics of transit.

While both the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation have marked up their portions of the surface transportation bill, Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs has yet to announce its markup of the transit portions of the surface transportation bill.

Those watching the bill say they have a good idea why: Sen. Pat Toomey, the ranking Republican on the committee, has been increasingly critical of the heavy federal investment in transit, arguing that the federal government has dumped dollars on systems but not demanded any reforms.

Toomey, R-Pa., is particularly incensed that Congress has spent some $70 billion on transit as part of a series of COVID-19 relief bills targeted in part on transportation industries pummeled by the pandemic. That money is on top of the more than $12 billion that Congress ordinarily invests in transit during a typical year.

“We have spent a staggering amount of money,” he said, adding that Congress spent more last year “than the sum total of the entire operating budget and capital budget of every transit agency in America combined.”

As part of his $2 trillion-plus infrastructure proposal, President Joe Biden has suggested spending an additional $85 billion in transit over the course of eight years. Toomey, 59, was part of a group of Republicans led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito that tried unsuccessfully to broker a deal with Biden, and he made clear during an April 15 hearing that he thought the amount suggested by Biden was excessive.

“If we were to pass this bill that President Biden has requested and we do the ordinary funding extension that’s being contemplated here at this hearing and we combined that with the $82 billion we provided over the last year, why, all of that money is enough that, according to 2019 Census data, we could buy every transit commuter in America a $30,000 car,” he said.

“I was taken aback by the hostility,” said Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America, who testified during that hearing. “I’ve never seen that out of him.”

She said while Toomey has called for accountability and expressed some skepticism for the federal investment in transit in the past, “this is a totally different thing from someone from a state like Pennsylvania that has one of the bigger transit systems in the country.” Her group’s mission includes advocating for transit.

“For him to not understand that role that it plays in a region’s economy was really startling,” she said.

But Fletcher McClellan, a professor of political science at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, said Toomey’s skepticism is a product of both his ideology and the state’s political divide.

“In this state, we have a pretty serious rural-urban divide,” he said, adding that even though Toomey is retiring, he’ll remain a voice in the party. “It may be in the back of his mind that anything perceived as pro-Philadelphia is usually a red flag in Republican circles.”

“He’s always been like this,” said Yasha Zarrinkelk, coalition manager and organizer for the pro-transit Transit Forward Philadelphia. “I don’t think he understands how much of an economic driver public transit is, not only for the state of Pennsylvania but for the entire country.”

He said, if anything, Toomey “has become a little less invested in the fight in preventing spending for transit” than he was before he retired.

The Banking Committee has a 12-12 split, meaning GOP support is critical. If the bill were to be tied in a markup, it would not be reported. However, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer could move to discharge it under Senate rules. Osborne predicted that if Banking Chairman Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Toomey can’t strike a deal on transit, that title will go straight to the floor. “They’ll only do a markup if they can pass it,” she said.

Osborne is not alone in wondering how Toomey’s concerns will impact the transit title.

“This is where I genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen,” said David Ditch, a research associate at the conservative Heritage Foundation who also testified at the April 15 hearing.

A spokeswoman for Brown said the Banking chairman “continues to work with ranking member Toomey in hopes of reaching a bipartisan agreement on a robust transit title for a surface transportation bill.”

In a sense, Toomey is a lone voice – literally, with him being the only Republican lawmaker present at the April 15 hearing – reflecting a larger and more consistent GOP criticism of transit: that it’s a giveaway to typically Democratic cities and that the money would be better spent building highways and helping rural areas.

It’s a tension that has existed since Congress in 1982 opted to siphon off about 20 percent of the Highway Trust Fund for transit, and one that has become an increasingly partisan flashpoint, with Democrats arguing that the 20% split is not enough and Republicans arguing it is too much.

But among the ranking Republicans on the committees of jurisdiction, Toomey is a bit of an anomaly, said Ditch. While Sens. Roger Wicker of Commerce and Capito of Environment and Public Works are generally supportive of investment in the portions of the surface transportation bill within their committees’ respective jurisdictions, Toomey is a skeptic.

“There is a real contrast,” Ditch said.

Ditch said that while past highway bills were delayed because of arguments over how to pay for them, transit is a quieter but still persistent divide.

“The sticking points were always going to be Banking and Finance,” he said. “The transit title is one where, frankly, there’s not a lot of enthusiasm among Republicans.”

But Toomey’s reluctance to invest in transit was less apparent, however, in a counteroffer to Biden’s plan with which he was intimately involved in April. That $568 billion plan included $61 billion for transit. “It was what it was,” Toomey said when asked if he supported that increase.

Adie Tomer, head of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the moderate Brookings Institution, said Toomey’s fiscal conservatism is nothing new – he was, after all, president of the Club for Growth. But he points to the fact that Toomey represents a “highly metropolitan state” with two vibrant transit systems as evidence that the senator has little choice but to be “well-versed in the importance of transit.”

“I think Republicans have a luxury on transit, where they can be publicly against it, and mean it, but then privately use that as a negotiating wedge to argue for other elements they want to see better support for,” Tomer said.

While Toomey is publicly critical of transit, “he can be that at the same time that he’s also willing to sacrifice that to get some of the things he really does care about,” Tomer said.

“He still could be an enemy of transit, but that doesn’t mean he’s a life-threatening enemy. There really is a difference.”