A Seat on the Bus?
Recipients of the president's daily press releases have become accustomed to the constant trumpeting of transportation infrastructure projects put in motion by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Vice President Joe Biden (of Amtrak-commuting fame) is constantly popping up at the most mundane locations--a bus depot in suburban Maryland, a highway interchange in Kalamazoo, Michigan--to proclaim the economic and ecological benefits of everything from new buses burning cleaner fuel to the widening of an Interstate. As the administration is so fond of noting, the Recovery Act included an impressive $48 .1 billion for roads and transit.
The problem is that those funds are dedicated almost exclusively for new investments instead of supplementing existing operating funds. Alas, even while states and cities are laying train tracks and buying new buses, they are being forced to cut bus routes and raise subway fares. Mass transit lines are being eliminated and fares raised in cities across the country. And cost-cutting measures mean that transit employees are being laid off from Anchorage, Alaska, to Miami, Florida. Laying off workers from good civil service jobs, and making traveling more expensive and difficult, could hinder the Obama administration's efforts to stimulate the economy.
The Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA) laid off 292 employees. "We're hiring construction workers at the same time that we're laying off bus drivers," says Wiley Norvell, spokesman for Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group for mass transit riders in New York City.
On July 1, Bay Area Rapid Transit instituted fare increases that range from 25 cents to $2.50 per ride. San Franciscans are also facing closing and service cuts on bus lines. That means there will be more crowding on the remaining buses. While that is not pleasant for anyone, it is especially problematic for people with disabilities. "A bus may be too full for a wheelchair user to board," says Bob Planthold, a disability activist in San Francisco who uses crutches due to childhood polio. "I worry that I'll lose much of my hard-won mobility and become nearly housebound."
"By cutting services you are inhibiting the ability of people who rely on the service to get to their jobs or get to new jobs," says Robert Puentes, a transportation expert at the Brookings Institution. Community organizers in low-income communities in San Francisco say that many of the people they work with would be trapped in poverty by having service cuts in their bus lines prevent them from getting to work or community college. In St. Louis some disabled bus riders are unable to go downtown at all, due to their bus lines having been cut. And while New York City's MTA avoided a "doomsday budget" scenario, fares still rose to $2.25 in June. So, even as mass transit ridership has increased in recent years thanks to unpredictable gas prices, services are being cut and fares are being raised. The worst hit are, of course, poor riders and people with disabilities.
Efforts to get the federal government to spend stimulus dollars to keep trains and buses running where they are needed most has been frustratingly fitful and only partially successful. Initially, the House of Representatives included $2 billion in the stimulus package for mass transit systems to deal with the recent high cost of gasoline and to make energy-saving upgrades. But that money was stripped by the Senate in the final negotiations. As the situation worsened throughout the spring, transit advocates in Congress decided that if they could not get more money for transit, perhaps they could at least inject some flexibility into the rules for how stimulus money could be spent. Representative Peter DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon, managed to get an amendment to the war-spending bill that allows states to spend 10 percent of their transit money from the stimulus on operating costs.
That's a helpful start, but it is not enough to cover the shortfalls this year, never mind in years to come. A report from Transportation for America shows the amount of money available to states for transit operating costs under the rule change, should they even use it for that, is less than the budget gaps many transit systems are facing. St. Louis will only get $4.5 million from the rule change. Even an expected additional $7.5 million from the Federal Transit Authority will still fall far short of the St. Louis metro system's $50 million deficit. Transit activists are also unhappy that every dollar spent on operating costs will mean a dollar less for capital investments. "We need, not just the increase in flexibility of transit funding," says James Corless, director of Transportation for America, "but a significant increase in the overall level of funding available to public transportation."
Some major transit systems, such as those in New York and Washington, DC, have a large enough constituency for mass transit that they were able to get help from local governments and therefore only suffered with service cuts or fare increases that, while painful in a recession, are not as severe as initially feared. But, without additional federal help they may have only forestalled the elimination of entire subway and bus lines and fares hikes of 25 percent or more. Even if the budget picture gets no bleaker, New York is planning to raise fares again in 2011 and 2013.
And, if the economy does not rebound immediately, declining tax revenues could cause worse transit budget shortfalls for years to come. "2011 will be as bad or worse as 2010," frets Peter Benjamin, first vice chairman of WMATA. "Tax revenues for local jurisdictions lag the recovery. If you get a recovery in 2011 you may not have enough money for 2012 because you spend money collected this year next year."
That means the federal government still has an opportunity to help stave off the worst for America's cities. If Congress ponied up a few billion dollars in time for the next fiscal year, it could help close gaps in operating costs across the country. They could make the help contingent on matching funds from local governments, to ensure that the state or county contributions to transit do not simply get cut by the amount that Congress kicks in, a possibilty that some local transit managers worry about. It could be part of the Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009, which is due for renewal this fall, but Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has asked Congress to delay action on the bill for eighteen months. Congress could also appropriate the money as part of another stimulus package, which administration officials are beginning to quietly acknowledge will be needed. Until then, millions of poor, elderly or disabled Americans like Bob Planthold will be waiting, and worrying.