Why Not More Funding For Public Transit?

February 9, 2009

Ryan Avent, writing in The American Prospect, is justifiably outraged:

“Perhaps worst of all, the Senate, like the House, declined to specifically direct funding toward operating costs for transit systems. While capital spending to repair and enlarge transit systems is absolutely necessary to meet long-term environmental (and economic goals), those investments do nothing to keep trains and buses running right now. With gas tax and general budget revenues plummeting, systems nationwide are cutting service, increasing fares, and sacking employees. And while grants to state governments may be used to cover some of the shortfall, state officials will face strong pressure to plug other holes first, stimulus concerns aside. Multi-jurisdictional systems in particular may be out of luck, as governments prove reluctant to devote money to systems that serve non-constituents.

This is an inexcusable failure to effectively address multiple priorities. Vehicle miles driven by Americans have been falling, as have automobile sales — dramatically — while transit ridership has increased. Congress’ priority, as reflected in proposed spending, is to reverse these trends, by spending on highways, subsidizing automobile sales, and permitting massive transit cuts. This is absurd.

From an environmental perspective, it makes sense to reinforce the shift toward greener choices. But nudging Americans further in a green direction also makes for good stimulus. Transit operating subsidies put money directly in riders’ pockets, while highway subsidies force consumers to direct more income toward gasoline (progressives who support Buy America provisions because they fear stimulus “leakage” on import spending would do well to note the billions we send abroad for oil). Our automobile dependency means that should recovery produce higher oil prices, disposable income will fall, potentially short-circuiting output growth. Any steps we can take to reduce per capita gasoline spending will help.”

As someone who rides on public transit almost daily, I can attest that the service on the system in Boston (the MBTA, or the “T”) has deteriorated over recent months. Beginning lat summer when gas prices skyrocketed, there was a noticeable increase in ridership, large enough that the system was having obvious difficulty handling it. This, combined with aged and deteriorating infrastructure has led to daily problems. The Red Line, long the most reliable in the system, has experienced chronic delays, often resulting from equipment failure. The bus system, meanwhile, is utterly unreliable (one way the T could start to save money is to give up its pretense that the bus system operates on a schedule and stop printing timetables). It is depressing to travel to foreign cities and be forced to realize that public transit (and, even more so, intercity rail) in this country is DECADES behind the rest of the developed world. And at this point it is unclear whether we will ever catch up, as it would involve overcoming many, many years of neglect. The subway system in Boston hasn’t seen any significant expansion in 25 years. Decades-old equipment is used on virtually every line. Even the newest commuter rail locomotives were purchased many years ago, and some have been in service for nearly 40 years. Somerville, where we live, contains some of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the urban area, but is served by only one subway station. The vast majority of residents in many of the most densely populated areas within the urban core, from Chelsea to Somerville to Roxbury, are dependent on buses. Signaling problems and “traffic” backups on the subway lines occur daily. And this is in Boston, which, relative to most other American cities, has outstanding public transportation. This is not sustainable, and it’s not going to change until the government initiates a Marshall-Plan style program to revitalize the nation’s transportation infrastructure.


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