Home Public Transit Policy A funding failure on a national level

A funding failure on a national level

by Benjamin Kabak

A bus stop warns of impending service cuts. Photo by Benjamin Kabak

Throughout the country, signs such as the ones currently adorning New York City’s bus stops are popping up all over. While infrastructure investment may be up, transit authorities can’t meet their bottom line, and to avoid fiscal ruin, those who run transit systems are cutting service and employees. As transit use hits record highs for the auto era, a depressing map from Transportation For America shows just how widespread the service cuts are.

Why transportation authorities are in the red cuts to the heart of mass transit as a public good. To ensure relatively equal access to all, fares for buses, subways and light rail lines must be kept artificially low. While the demographics of New York City’s transit users do not line up well with the rest of the nation’s, throughout the country, people who are less well off are generally transit riders, and to keep the economy moving, transit fares cannot be prohibitively expenses. In an ideal world, the state would subsidize the difference between revenue and a $0 balance sheet.

But over the last few decades, transit authorities have come face-to-face with financial difficulties. Some of it can be blamed on a conservative government movement hesitant to invest in public goods. Some of it can be blamed on bad debt funding practices; some on rising pension obligations and management salary totals; and some on unfunded federal mandates. The bottom line is that, no matter the cost, transit authorities are broke, and the American people are suffering for it.

A recent editorial by Dan Grabauskas, a former GM at Boston’s MBTA, and Paul Regan, current executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board bring this national problem to light. In Boston, the MBTA faces a “$230 million structural deficit and $543 million in unfunded safety-critical projects.” In other words, despite the city’s willingness to spend billions on the Big Dig, it can’t find the money to ensure the T can run properly, efficiently and safely.

The two summarize the national crisis:

According to a 2010 survey by the American Public Transportation Association, 84 percent of all transit agencies have cut service or raised fares in the last year, or plan to do so in the near future. New York City faces a $800 million shortfall, and has implemented a plan to delay maintenance, and cut entire subway lines and bus routes; Chicago, facing a $300 million shortfall, has significantly reduced service on dozens of bus routes, and rail lines; Philadelphia has announced a 6 percent fare increase to help close a $110 million operating deficit; and Washington has a $189 million operating deficit for next year, with plans to balance it by using capital funds to pay for operating costs (thus deferring maintenance), as well as reducing some bus and rail service.

These “legacy’’ transit systems are starved by budgets in which escalating and intractable fixed costs outpace combined fare revenues and government subsidies. They are pressured by safety and reliability concerns resulting from deferred maintenance, and they face continuing calls for expansion without regard for how to pay to build, operate, or maintain the extensions, let alone the existing system.

Overall, the two urge transit authorities to invest in repairs and system maintenance — the so-called State of Good Repair — before eying ambitious expansion projects. One, though, should not come at the expense of another. The country’s transit networks must expand to meet environmental demands and the needs of growing urban population centers.

The two also urge public/private partnerships to encourage creative solutions to maintenance and construction challenges, and they call for an expansion of the funding available for public transit systems under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act. It might be too late for New York to avoid the upcoming service cuts, but as a nation’s transit systems suffer, it’s time for the federal government to act. Token stimulus dollars that can be used for operating expenses won’t cut it, but a true commitment to mass transit will.

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25 comments

JPN May 18, 2010 - 7:19 am

Because of mistrust of the government on all levels, as well as the transit agencies themselves, raising taxes to fund transit operations seems all but out of the question. That’s the sad state of this era.

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Marc Shepherd May 18, 2010 - 10:33 am

Because of mistrust of the government on all levels, as well as the transit agencies themselves, raising taxes to fund transit operations seems all but out of the question. That’s the sad state of this era.

In NYC, transit has been underfunded for many decades — probably since before most readers of this blog were born. It is a problem that goes far beyond “the sad state of this era.”

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Josh K May 18, 2010 - 1:57 pm

While city and Albany politicians have long been reluctant to fund transit in NYC, there did arise in the 1980’s a political consensus that any form of taxes were bad and that every part of government should be as self-sustaining as possible. This has meant staffing cuts across all government agencies and authorities, reduced services and huge debt loads.

Instead of taxing the wealthiest people and corporations in NYC, who’s wealth is generated by the collective efforts of millions of people commuting to work in Manhattan every day, governments decided to borrow that money from the wealthy, at interest. Maintaining the level of service desired while placing the burden on those least able to carry it, has led to an intractable dilemma.

NYC is the heart of global finance. Manhattan is also geographically constrained in such a way that it isn’t conducive at all to personalized vehicle commutes. This means that in order for global finance to function properly, NYC needs the infrastructure to support these enterprises. That means modern transit, electrical, water and sewer systems. To fund this, it is only logical that those who get such tremendous benefit out of this infrastructure, pay their fair share toward it. If they have money to lend, they have money to tax.

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Scott E May 18, 2010 - 8:06 am

On Friday, this post about the NJ Transit fare hike and service cuts, linked to this nj.com article describing the cuts. Among them, on the Montclair-Boonton line, two trains are combined into one, four are discontinued, and one has added stops. In total, they claim “Approximately 150 customers impacted”.

Now, I don’t know what qualifies to NJT as being “impacted”, but if cancelling four trains impacts, on average, less than 40 riders per train, that tells me something is wrong. Either riders have been defecting from the trains (fix: find a way to bring them back), or there were too many to begin with (fix: cancel some).

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Al D May 18, 2010 - 9:40 am

Scott E,

I tend to agree with you. In NYC, I see first hand the low ridership many bus lines get. What has seemed to irritate me the most is the public and local elected officials response to the cut where I grew up in Southern Brooklyn. They all wanted weekend express bus service for years, even though everybody knew that almost no one would ride them. So the MTA gave it to them eventually, and guess what, nobody rides ’em! Their ridership is very low, so now that they are to be cut, here come the protesters. Same goes for the ‘beloved’ B37 that basically runs empty for most its route. So the MTA comes along and offers up a pretty darned good solution which is to run the B70 in the section where the B37 saw some ridership and where the politics are greater. So what happens? They protest the B37 anyway!

My only complaint about the cuts is that rush hour service should probably have been left alone or swapped out even for a service change (such as the M for the V which is actually a net gain in my opinion). But otherwise why do I, as a fare payer AND a taxpayer, have to pay for buses that run empty all night or on the weekend, and for the V!

Oy vey.

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Christopher May 18, 2010 - 9:44 am

Because it’s still more efficient to pay for those empty buses than to pay for roads, fuel, and parking.

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Duke87 May 18, 2010 - 11:54 am

Yes, but in absence of any given city bus service all of its patrons will not suddenly start driving. Most will use other transit options. In which case, you have a net gain in efficiency (same number of people using fewer trains and buses).

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Christopher May 18, 2010 - 5:08 pm

Depends on where they live. If options are such that driving becomes that much easier… people will drive. The balance is always tipped toward cars. Small changes in transit are enough to make transit unappealing. (While small changes — hell big changes like higher gas and major road construction — barely make a dent in a driving. It requires HUGE changes to get people out of their cars. And consistent and ubiquitous transit service.)

BrooklynBus May 18, 2010 - 11:16 am

So your solution is to discontinue the meager 60 minute overnight service that gets low income people to and from their odd shifts or home from a night at a club at 3AM, and put them on unemployment or make them prisoners in their own home. I’m sure you would think a little differently if you were one of them.

That’s not to say that the system couldn’t be run more efficiently if the MTA would run an alternate night time bus network like other cities do.

As far as the weekend, other than express buses, they are not so empty as you may think. The only reason the MTA keeps its low utilized weekend express service operated by MTA Bus Company is because it is subsidized by the City and doesn’t come out of its budget. That subsidy has to be rethought and spread around so the MTA doesn’t continue to cut NYCT routes while mostly sparing MTA Bus

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Al D May 18, 2010 - 1:14 pm

MTA published all the ridership figures to explain, in numeric and monetary detail, the reason for the cuts. Your position suggests that ALL bus lines should run once an hour, which you are not advocating for.

In regards to weekend service, I am referring specificaly to the underutilized weekend x27 and x28 services that serves the whiners of southern Brooklyn. Those buses are empty or close to it on the vast majority of their trips.

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BrooklynBus May 18, 2010 - 5:10 pm

I did not state that ALL bus lines should run once an hour. I stated there should be a separate nightime network but did not indicate how extensive it should be. Portions of some routes should be discontinued, while other portions may need to operate more frequently.

Regarding weekend express service, before jumping to conclusions that the X27 and X28 buses are empty on weekends after a few random observations, and calling southern Brooklyn a bunch of whiners, perhaps you should look at the ridership figures you refer to. I’ll make it easy for you and give them to you here.

The weekend direct operating cost for the X27 is $6.42, and $7.28 for the X28. Compare those numbers with Weekend MTA Bus Company ridership which ranges from $4.99 to $40.44 for routes being retained. Of the 18 Saturday routes retained 16 cost more than $6.42 to operate, and 11 out of 12 Sunday routes cost more than $6.42.

In fact, the average direct cost to operate an MTA Express bus on Saturday is $9.86 and $9.02 for Sunday. So if you think the X27 and X28 that are being discontinued on weekends are empty, the routes operated by MTA Bus are even emptier and they are being retained.

Yes, the published ridership figures does explain but does not justify these cuts.

BrooklynBus May 18, 2010 - 5:15 pm

I also tend to like the B70 rerouting they came up with, assuming the B37 needs to be discontinued. The problem is that although I tend to agree it may not be needed, I have not been thoroughly convinced.

They are protesting because Bay Ridge loses a direct connection to Lutheran Hospital, their primary care facility. I have not heard any other protests from other neighborhoods that route serves.

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Streetsblog.net » Consequences for Banana-Throwers, and the Case for Human Decency May 18, 2010 - 9:29 am

[…] from around the network: Bike Portland on "aggromuters" and "policy crushes." Second Ave. Sagas on the national failure to fund transit. And Bike Omaha on the beauty of a bike […]

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Al D May 18, 2010 - 9:32 am

Hang on, I thought that the Obama Administration was FOR mass transit!

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Christopher May 18, 2010 - 9:42 am

And yet we subsidize car ownership at massive levels and continue to do so — at a cost of livability, the environment, and efficiency. The message has to get out that so called “public transit” is no more public than the personally-owned automobile that benefits from subsidized roads, subsidized car companies, subsidized parking, and subsidized fuel.

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BrooklynBus May 18, 2010 - 12:49 pm

Why is it that on this website all I read are apologies for the MTA and how they are doing the best they can?

Last night I attended a hearing for Select Bus Service in Brooklyn, another hairbrained scheme based on poor planning that wasn’t even publicized. Only a handful of people attended.

The MTA claims that a total of 19 minutes would be saved on the 9-mile route operating between Sheepshead Bay and the Williamsburg Bridge. The problem is that virtually no one makes such a trip and the imminent discontinuation of the B39 over the Williamsburg Bridge will not permit a local bus trip into Manhattan from Brooklyn. Also, the average passenger trip length is only 2.6 miles on this route. Therefore the time savings for the average passenger is really only about 4 minutes. The MTA claims this is significant because it is 8 minutes per day and adds up over the course of the year. Also consider that one or two minutes of this projected four minute savings could be accomplished merely by implementing priority traffic signalling for buses without the rest of the project entailing needless construction costs which the MTA isn’t concerned about because it is federally funded.

SBS might make sense had they chosen another route with longer average passenger trips such as a modified B82 with Cesar’s Bay Shopping Center at one end the Gateway Mall on the other (which I had suggested six years ago whwn this project began), but not on a route that competes with the subway for part of its run and where the average passenger trip is so short.

Also, stops will be spaced further apart than the limited service it will replace, increasing walking distances for users of the service especially harming the elderly and handicapped. Additionally, local bus stops and SBS stops would not be at the same corners, preventing someone from taking the first bus that comes since they will have to commit themselves beforehand to either the local or the SBS further increasing wait times and making travel more difficult.

As part of the plan, service is reduced to Kings County Hospital in one direction by as much as 50 percent with excessive service put on Rogers Avenue since no other routes are restructured as part of this plan. The MTA also will not commit themselves to the types of buses to be used on the Brooklyn SBS, two or three-door articulated buses. It is known that two door artics slows down buses on heavily utilized routes by greatly increased boarding times. However in this case with pre-paid fares, the difference may be negligible but will still detract from the time savings.

If articulated buses are put in service on the local portion of this route, running times and travel times are sure to increase for local passengers. Waiting times will also increase since whenever the MTA institutes articulated buses to replace 40 footers, only four buses are used to replace five buses representing a service cut which seems to be all that the MTA is interested in doing. I ask you is this responsible planning?

It is ironic that the MTA claims that a four minute savings per trip is significant, while at the same time they insist that an extra five or ten minutes for the average passenger added to trips (and in some instances much more) as a result of the massive service cuts planned for June 27th is insignificant. So it is okay to spend big Federal bucks and inconvenience people so that some may save a neglibile two or three minutes, if any time is saved at all. Meanwhile they do nothing to try to improve service on the rest of the bus system.

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Benjamin Kabak May 18, 2010 - 12:54 pm

Brooklyn Bus: I know your background, and I preface this by saying I mean no offense, but based on this comment it isn’t clear to me that you fully understand the purpose or city agencies behind the Select Bus Service plans. Have you read through the DOT site about planning first? This is a joint initiative with NYC DOT and the MTA, and right now, they’re looking at various corridors that would benefit from SBS. It’s not a program designed to replace local bus service, and I’m not sure all of your critiques are valid.

That said, please do keep comments on topic though. These posts aren’t an open forum where anything goes. They’re structured with specific topics, and I’d rather not have to implement commenting guidelines as I’ve done on my other website. If you have something off-topic to discuss, you can contact me about it and odds are good I’ll post about it.

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BrooklynBus May 18, 2010 - 4:39 pm

I do have a full understanding of the SBS Project and am quite aware that it is a joint project. (There was no need to bring DOT into the discussion.) You are the one who is misinformed, Mr. Kabok, the Brooklyn Corridor has already been chosen, they closed the process of investigating other corridors several years ago and I participated in that process.

I would be glad to contact you personally to discuss anything you would like if only you would respond to my personal e-mails which you seem to be ignoring.

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Benjamin Kabak May 18, 2010 - 4:41 pm

It’s Kabak, K-A-B-A-K.

And I’ve responded to every single email of yours I’ve received. I don’t know why you think otherwise.

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BrooklynBus May 18, 2010 - 7:16 pm

I sent you two in the past month without a response. I will resend them.

BrooklynBus May 18, 2010 - 7:32 pm

Okay, just resent them. Ready to talk when you are.

Alon Levy May 18, 2010 - 7:22 pm

SBS uses off-board fare collection. In principle, this means buses no longer stand forever at the station while people are boarding.

(I say “in principle” because the way the fare is enforced in New York is moronic beyond belief. Everywhere else in the world, inspectors board the bus and check fares while the bus is moving. In New York, the bus has to stand still.)

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BrooklynBus May 18, 2010 - 7:48 pm

Not sure what your point is. Yes, boarding should be faster. But I don’t think Ben wants us to discuss this here. So I’ll just drop it if it’s alright with you.

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Niccolo Machiavelli May 19, 2010 - 9:08 pm

How is it you can have 23 comments on this piece with no one noticing the little thing of the “great recession”. The proximate cause of the MTA funding crisis has nothing at all to do with the operation, work rules, wage rates or Mr. Walder’s salary (sure they have an effect). The deficit is purely and simply a function of the economic crisis effecting virtually every sector of the American (World) economy. The problem with MTA funding is that it is very much tied to Real Estate values, mortgage transactions, Bridge and Tunnel tolls and ridership (all way down). How is the business cycle and economic crisis not even on your radar screens?

Clearly, were there other mechanisms in place (congestion pricing, fuel taxes, whatever) the hole could have been filled, but it wasn’t. Still the business cycle has eaten a giant hole in the budget. When the business cycle swings back and Real Estate and Mortgage Recording Tax receipts are up, will that mean to you that the system is adequately funded?

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Alon Levy May 20, 2010 - 1:06 am

A few years ago, people seriously mooted the idea of putting the windfall revenues in a rainy day fund. Instead, the money went to tax cuts and spending increases.

It’s not the recession – it’s the prior preparations for it.

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