Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Rider Paradox: Surge in Mass, Drop in Transit

The New York Times recently ran an article called, Rider Paradox: Surge in Mass, Drop in Transit, detailing how many transit agencies have to drastically cut their budgets and workers despite an overall increase in ridership.

The article lays out the crux of the problem here:

"Their problem is that fare-box revenue accounts for only a fifth to a half of the operating revenue of most transit systems — and the sputtering economy has eroded the state and local tax collections that the systems depend on to keep running. “We’ve termed it the ‘transit paradox,’ ” said Clarence W. Marsella, general manager of Denver’s system, which is raising fares and cutting service to make up for the steep drop in local sales tax.

The billions of dollars that Congress plans to spend on mass transit as part of the stimulus bill will also do little to help these systems with their current problems. That is because the new federal money — $12 billion was included in the version passed last week by the House, while the Senate originally proposed less — is devoted to big capital projects, like buying train cars and buses and building or repairing tracks and stations."

Sadly now for decades many transit agencies are now solely dependent on government funding and not transit fares which have shrinking nationally for decades since the 1960's. Nationally only one transit system is actually producing a profit for transit fares, which is BART, the Bay Area Regional Transit which serves the San Francisco area. Even the New York City Metro which is the most used transit system and the lifeline to the city does not produce a profit.

Public transportation ridership is surging across the country,” he wrote, “increasing 6.5 percent in the third quarter of 2008 — the largest quarterly increase in the past 25 years, but transit systems are cutting service, increasing fares and laying off employees as a result of increased transit fuel costs in the past year and declining state and local revenue sources that support transit.”

The cutting of public transit has a double whammy effect on the already struggling economy. Not only do transit jobs get lost but those that depend on public transit now after to find an alternate means to work. Assuming individuals who depend on travel could purchase a car, banks are now only lending to people with outstanding credit which eliminates a large segment of people, especially those who live in low income neighborhoods who would be affected the most.

Overall this is very grim news for those who live in cities and depend on transit. Major restructuring of transit agencies need to be done as well as upgrading the existing infrastructure. Since most transit agencies depend on federal funding and new infrastructure will be most likely paid by the Federal government, should the county consider nationalizing public transit?

What do you think?


dizzle said...

Nationalized public transit?? I don't think kicking the problem up to the feds will help. Money from them, sure, but management from them would be a waste.

Cherrie McKenzie said...

Nationalizing transit is a non-starter if we are talking about more of the same approaches we have right now. However, suburban sprawl has proven it is an unsustainable model as witnessed by last years rise in gas prices and more people switching to mass transit. Let's face it, most people could care less about poor people who depend on mass transit. But, if you make it convenient for the big car commuter then the guy who depends on mass transit also benefits and we as taxpayers are paid back by less outlay for infarstructure. But planners have to be creative beyond more of the same.

Toure Zeigler said...

Dizzle, I agree with but local transit agencies have not done a great job in transit planning. While having the Feds run transit may not be a good idea, mandating that every metro region must have suitable transit with the feds providing fund like they do for highways may serve the public better.

Toure Zeigler said...

Cherrie, I agree with you also but while we must provide incentives for people to take transit we must also provide disincentives for people not to drive. It must be a combination of the two or people will revert to their previous habits.

Kirk Mantay said...

The irony is that times of economic downturn have always been when ridership has increased - usually long term increases that aren't (quickly) lost when the economy brightens. Typical short-sightedness.

I would love to take transit from my home in Bmore to my job on the outskirts of Annapolis. MTA doesn't even offer a BUS on the 25-mile route between the state's largest city and its capital. Let alone convenient and/or accessible rail transit.

Toure Zeigler said...

That's amazing that there isnt any transit service between Baltimore and Annapolis.

Kirk Mantay said...

I called the MTA customer service line about a year ago and the woman said, "Yeah, there's really no one interested in that service."

So....the tens of thousands of cars that jam I-97 south every morning with commuters from Harford, Baltimore, and Carroll County...they're a figment of our imagination.

MTA's got it all figured out. I know that myself, personally, I enjoy the scenic commute of I-895 and I-97 so much that I would never want to give it up just to save money and maybe read a book on the way to work. Never. I-97 is like the Blue Ridge Parkway of Baltimore...not.

Toure Zeigler said...

Wow @ "No one is really interested." I think Annapolis might have the worst congestion in the state...even worse then I-495.

I bet the state will build another highway before they build transit. Maybe we can lobby to get some of the stimulus monry to build high speed rail from Naptown to Bmore.