Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Wheels On The Bus

Yesterday, Atrios made a good point about one of the problems in getting adequate funding for mass transportation projects: "I was thinking yesterday that part of the problem is that we don't really have the equivalent of the highway building industry to lobby for money. Freight companies throw some weight around, but their interests aren't exactly aligned with those of commuter rail advocates."

True enough. The people who rely on commuter rail and public transportation tend not to be wealthy enough to hire lobbyists. Still, some money in the proposed stimulus package is set aside for mass transit projects, even if it's not nearly enough. That money, however, is designated for new projects, i.e., those that will create jobs to build new lines and stations and to manufacture new, more fuel efficient locomotives, carriages, and buses.

At the moment, unfortunately, most public transportation authorities are facing deeper problems. They are running out of money to keep the existing services operating. Today's Los Angeles Times points to those problems and their roots:

The dramatic spike in gas prices that began in 2005 sent Americans flocking to trains, buses and subways, a trend that appears to have held up even as gas prices have dipped. But 2009 could be a year of crisis for the agencies that run them -- a time of more riders but much less money.

Some new funding could come as part of House Democrats' proposed $825-billion stimulus package, which, in its current form, sets aside $9 billion for public transportation. But all of that money would be used for new capital projects, not operating costs. And it is operating budgets -- the money agencies need to run the systems they have now -- that are getting hammered. ...

In Cleveland, ridership increased for the sixth consecutive year in 2008. But like every major public transit system in the country, Cleveland's relies on both fares and tax revenue for funding -- and county sales taxes, a key component of the budget, have plummeted in the stalled economy ...

The situation is particularly dire in California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, facing a $41-billion state budget shortfall, has proposed eliminating grants to local transit agencies for the current fiscal year and the next -- a move that would save $559 million, according to H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the state Department of Finance.

In Los Angeles, the transit system has avoided major service cuts, said Marc Littman, a Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman. But the elimination of the state subsidy -- which provides nearly 16% of the MTA operating budget -- along with shrinking sales-tax revenue, means tough choices lay ahead.


What most people, especially those who don't use public transportation, fail to realize is that fares are not the main source of funding. Local taxes and state and federal subsidies provide the bulk of the monies needed to run public transportation systems. So, while increased ridership is a signal that people are finally willing to be weaned from their automobiles, that increased ridership is not really helping all that much in keeping the buses and trains operating. In some cases, the increased ridership is actually putting additional pressure on the budgets because additional vehicles have been required to keep up, which means increased labor costs in addition to increased capital outlays.

The crunch here is that the local governments are seeing the primary funding sources, usually a combination of sales taxes and property taxes, dry up, and states are having their own budgetary problems, which means state grants to public transportation are being slashed or, as in the case of California, cut out altogether. Existing systems are running out of the money needed to keep the buses rolling today.

Simply raising fares and cutting services isn't going to help. All that will do is drive people back to their automobiles. What will help, at least at this point, is federal funding for existing services to cover the operating costs shortfall. The trick is to convince Congress and the President that if we really do want to become energy independent, if we really do want to cut carbon emissions, then we have to consider local public transportation systems as part of the puzzle, and a significant one.

After all, if people can't get to the jobs created by the stimulus package, then that stimulus package just isn't going to work.

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2 Comments:

Blogger shrimplate said...

The people represented by the upper reaches of The L Curve are just going to have to help out, or they too will badly affected by recession/depression.

5:54 AM  
Anonymous larry, dfh said...

Replacement Costs
That's the way the public transportation system in LA should have been valued when they tore up the original tracks. That way, the cost of maintenance and expansion of an extant system could have been better understood and anticipated rather than having to build a completely new system after having handed over the public real estate to the private developers.

7:16 AM  

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