At an RPA panel this morning in New Jersey, MTA head Joe Lhota spoke about securing dedicated transit funding, and his words made me ponder a generational divide. Via Dana Rubinstein:
Speaking today on a Regional Plan Association panel at the Princeton Club that also included New Jersey’s transportation commissioner, Lhota said, “I’m not sure about the state house in the legislative end in Trenton, but I can tell you when I go to Albany, I mean, just trying to talk about increased investment in rail, including in the folks in the M.T.A. region, it’s not that easy.”
“I hope it’s a generational thing,” he continued. “Pretty much the phasing [in] of the people who are the younger folks who are much used to not driving, who are used to taking more rapid transit, and that’s what we’re actually seeing at the M.T.A. The increase in growth, if you look at the demographics of it, it’s basically people who are 35 and below, who are using the system, significantly more than people older than that.”
On the one hand, Lhota’s characterization makes perfect sense to me. Many of the representatives in Albany controlling transit’s purse strings grew up in an age when a car was synonymous with personal mobility and the decaying and dangerous subway system was to be avoided. For most of their formative years, political or otherwise, the MTA couldn’t be trusted with running a train without a breakdown let alone spending money, and the subways weren’t a priority.
Yet, on the other hand, many of today’s under-35 set also came of age at a time of MTA corruption or ineptitude. They hear vaguely of charges of improper bookkeeping and understand transit funding only through the lens of Albany divestment in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But they do not, as Lhota noted, have the same level of car ownership as their parents and are much more ardent subway users. That’s why many of the younger representatives in Albany are some of the more vocal transit advocates.
It’s probably foolish or at least naive to think a new generation of lawmakers will suddenly realize the value of transit, but as constituents who are more accepting of the subway system grow up, they can make noises about investment. Waiting out demographics shifts is no way to accomplish anything in a timely fashion, but it certainly can be a piece of the puzzle. I think Lhota is on to something here.