As gas prices rise and public transportation usage climbs upward, transit agencies are finding themselves struggling under increasing costs. That’s a sentence that was true two years ago and still rings true today, but the federal government isn’t doing much about it. Sure, the feds fork over billions for capital expansion plans, but operating support has been hard to come by.
Last week, transit agencies again went hat in hand to Washington to ask for operating support, and again, Washington rebuffed their advances. Melanie Trottman of the Wall Street Journal was on hand to report on these goings-on and more:
Officials from more than 30 public transit systems came to Washington this week to tell Congress that most of them don’t have the money to keep up with demand as rising gas prices boost ridership. But a key House Republican said Tuesday that transit systems needed to streamline their operations, and not count on Congress for more money…
President Barack Obama’s 2012 budget requested $22.4 billion for public transit, more than double the amount he sought for fiscal 2010. A separate proposal would pump $119 billion into public transportation programs over six years as part of a $556 billion highway, transit and rail infrastructure bill.
But the fate of both proposals is uncertain. The last multiyear highway and transit bill expired in 2009. Since then, Congress has passed seven extensions to continue funding, but the heads of many transit systems say their plans for growth and upkeep have already been stymied by funding uncertainty.
The key House Republican is none other than House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica. During the hearings, he said of transit agencies, “They’re going to have to be much more creative and look at consolidation of some of their operations.”
The American Public Transportation Association, though, wants to see action from DC before it’s too late. APTA looks at rising gas prices and notes how the increase in fuel costs lead to more transit trips. If gas tops $4 per gallon, transit agencies would see an additional 670 million trips a year. As Trottman notes, “When gas prices rose in 2007 and topped $4 in mid-2008, 85% of transit agencies reported experiencing capacity constraints on parts of their systems, APTA said.”
The problem is two-fold. On the one hand, politicians hate to invest in operating costs because it’s not sexy. It’s not something they can show to the press or constituents as a firm commitment to transit. They can’t take people into the headquarters of a transit agency to show a well-funded system as they can to, say, a pit underneath the Sunnyside Yards.
On the other hand, the nation dialogue has focused almost exclusively on cutting costs. Politicians are putting pressure on municipalities and local government institutions to trim, trim, trim and cut, cut, cut. The federal government and the Republican-dominated House, in particular, is not going to be too forthcoming with extra dollars for operating costs right now.
And so transit agencies will go forward with their economic crises. If gas rises and voters head to buses and trains, systems will find themselves at capacity, and politicians may begin to hear from constituents about inadequate public transit. It will take creative leadership to solve this problem, and right now, we’ve seen little willingness to head down that path. Costs will grow while subsidies and support do not.