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.