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.