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Don’t Take My Ride!

Cuts in public transportation hit older Americans hard

Helene Mills, a retired auditor, is concerned about how she can continue her busy schedule as a volunteer and activist in her neighborhood. She lives in Sweet Auburn, a historic district in downtown Atlanta where Martin Luther King Jr. grew up. Mills knew King as a child and proudly carries on his tradition of community involvement.

“Everything that happens around here to bring the neighborhood back up, I’m involved,” she says. “Meetings about improving the schools. Neighborhood planning initiatives. The restorative justice board to help young people who have committed felonies.” So active is she in providing Sweet Auburn’s older citizens with activities and care that the facility that hosts the arts and crafts classes, fitness programs, computer training, senior day care and photography lessons bears her name—the Helene Mills Senior Center.

But it’s not age that makes Mills, 82, worry about staying involved in community projects. It’s the end of bus service on the 99 and 113 lines running through her neighborhood. Under cutbacks proposed by the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), buses would stop seven blocks short of her home, leaving her to walk through a high-crime area to reach a transit stop.

“Except grocery shopping, I go everywhere by bus—church, the doctor, shopping, plays, meetings, volunteering,” says Mills. “If I couldn’t get somebody to drive me, I’d just have to stay home.”

She is also concerned that the Helene Mills Senior Center will lose its bus service. “We have 200 people a day who come, and a good portion of them ride the bus,” she says.

Faced with a shortfall in revenues because of the recession, MARTA drew up plans this spring to slash bus and train service by 25 percent, according to Cheryl King, assistant general manager for planning. Sixty-five bus routes would be scrapped, leaving just 66 left to cover Atlanta and sprawling DeKalb and Fulton counties.

Meanwhile Clayton County, just south of Atlanta and home of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, pulled the plug on all public transportation March 31. The system provided 2 million rides last year on buses, and 65 percent of its customers have no regular access to an auto, according to a Clayton County survey.

National cutbacks

The problem isn’t Atlanta’s alone. Fifty-nine percent of U.S. transit agencies have curtailed service or raised fares since January 2009, according to a March survey from the American Public Transit Association (APTA). Last year, St. Louis cut 35 percent of its bus system and reduced the frequency of light rail trains by 20 percent. Colorado Springs, Colo., cut bus service by 55 percent since 2008, ending all weekend and late-evening rides. More cuts are foreseen across the country as local and state governments face wrenching budget problems.

New York, Chicago, Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area, where millions depend on buses and trains every day, are facing particularly acute crises. Next month, New York City is closing down two subway lines and more than 20 bus lines. “San Francisco’s MUNI bus and train system just cut 10 percent of its service despite the fact that they are busting at the seams with riders,” reports Rob Padgette, APTA’s director of policy and research.

Deep transit cuts also come at a time when there are more reasons than ever to diversify the U.S. transportation network beyond automobiles, say transportation experts from a number of organizations. A weak economy wreaks havoc on family budgets, and fears about rising gas prices resurface. An oil spill fouling the Gulf of Mexico, congestion clogging our communities and dependence on foreign oil make the case that the country should be, perhaps, less reliant on vehicles that run on gas.

And then there are the increasing numbers of active Americans seeking driving alternatives as the first boomers turn 65 next year. “For millions of older Americans, public transportation is critical to maintaining independence and quality of life,” says APTA President William Millar. “Our investment in public transportation must grow as the number of older Americans we serve dramatically increases.”

In fact, APTA, with help from AARP, just released a study showing that U.S. transit agencies should be spending $3.9 billion more annually than they are now over the next 20 years to accommodate a 79 percent increase in the population of Americans over 65. The report states that “current services provide trips amounting to about one-half to two-thirds of the estimated need.” Beyond improvements to everyday service, the study calls for design improvements to vehicles and transit stops as well as expanded on-demand public ride services and volunteer driver programs. Not factored into the study is the reality that many caregivers—both volunteer and professional—travel by public transportation.

A faulty funding model?

The recession fueled the crisis in public transportation, which relies on various methods of funding around the country: sales taxes, property taxes, payroll taxes, gas taxes, state and local funding, advertising and money collected at the fare box. Those revenues simply are not as high as they were two years ago, according to David Goldberg, communications director of Transportation for America, an advocacy organization of which AARP is a member. Almost every transit system in the country is searching for new ways to make their operations, employees and routes more efficient, but in most cases these savings are not nearly enough to plug the revenue deficits. Federal money cannot be spent on transit operating costs in cities of more than 200,000, although the stimulus bill passed by Congress last year did direct small sums to minimize damage in the most hard-hit local systems. And the Public Transit Preservation Act of 2010, introduced in Congress on May 25, would provide $2 billion for transit agencies across the country to maintain vital service.

“Transit across the country is funded in ways that leaves it most vulnerable to the economic cycle,” even though it is an essential service similar to police and fire protection, says Goldberg. He is hopeful the federal government can step in to save buses and trains by including funds for transit operations in upcoming jobs, climate change or transportation bills.

“Transit systems just don’t help transit users; they get people off crowded roads,” says Robert Puentes, a transportation authority at the Brookings Institution. “They help rebuild communities. And they help the economy by getting people to work. It will be devastating if poor people can’t get to work.”

Axing public rides strikes a nerve

Reduced transit service coincides with Americans’ rediscovery of the convenience of public transportation. New rail systems and improvements to bus service across the country resulted in an unprecedented 31 percent rise in transit ridership over the past 15 years—twice the rate of population growth and higher than the rate of increase for automobile use. This despite the long-held belief that Americans love cars too much to consider alternatives for getting around.

As proof, the public has voiced its opposition to transportation cuts—at the polls. Voters in suburban St. Louis County responded to service reductions by voting 63 percent in favor of a sales tax increase in a referendum last month, which will bring back bus routes, increase the frequency of trains, and restore call-a-ride and door-to-door van service for riders with disabilities.

Dan and Meredith O’Connor, a retired couple in the St. Louis suburb of Crestwood, welcome the news. Although both still drive, they prefer taking light rail to Cardinal baseball games, dining and other downtown locations. “It’s just easier to ride the train,” Dan, 70, says. “No traffic jams, no parking fees. But it did become more of hassle after the cuts. It took a lot more planning. If you missed the train by a nose, you’d have to wait another 20 minutes.”

At a rally to protest the MARTA cuts in Atlanta, transit workers painted large “X”s on some buses and trains to represent the percentage of vehicles to be taken out of service. “We are just crawling out of a recession,” former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell told the rally, “but we will be knocked back into another one if the salespersons are not behind the store counters, if the restaurant workers are not in the kitchens, if the office staff are not behind their desks.”

Responding to pressure, the state legislature relaxed a law requiring MARTA to spend no more than 50 percent of its sales tax revenues to operate buses and trains for three years. Sales taxes are MARTA’s chief source of funding, making it the only large transit system in the country that receives no state funding for operations.

MARTA’s Cheryl King says the flexibility in spending restrictions along with a slight upturn in sales tax revenues means the transit cuts won’t be quite as severe. Only 41 bus lines will disappear, instead of 65. “But we’re not out of the woods.”

MARTA held an extensive series of meetings with transit riders to consider how cuts could be implemented with a minimum of pain. Helene Mills, of course, was there speaking for the Sweet Auburn neighborhood and advocating more funding for transit. The planning department has made cuts to the 113 bus route. Mills and many of her neighbors are getting more worried.

Jay Walljasper, senior fellow at Project for Public Spaces and co-editor of the OnTheCommons.org, is author of The Great Neighborhood Book and the forthcoming All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons Today.

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