The New York Times reported today on the “transit paradox” — rising transit demand that is being met with service cuts:
Transit systems across the country are raising fares and cutting service even when demand is up with record numbers of riders last year, many of whom fled $4-a-gallon gas prices and stop-and-go traffic for seats on buses and trains. 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.
Furthermore, the Times noted that the stimulus bill currently before the Senate does not address these issues. Instead, the mass transit money is “devoted to big capital projects, like buying train cars and buses and building or repairing tracks and stations. Money that some lawmakers had proposed to help transit systems pay operating costs, and avoid layoffs and service cuts, was not included in the latest version.”
There is a definite case to be made for including operational aid for transit systems in the stimulus package, and it’s a shame that Congress has forsaken it. As John Kaehny wrote at the Streetsblog:
It will take time for the economy and local government to digest and contract out billions in infrastructure spending. In contrast, local transit agencies can spend billions in stimulus aid quickly just by keeping existing bus and subway service operating. If the true intent of the stimulus is to inject money into the economy as quickly and efficiently as possible, and do so in an environmentally friendly and socially just manner, then transit operating assistance is an obvious choice.
The stimulus package has two aims: creating new jobs and preserving existing jobs. There are currently 59 transit systems in America that are facing budget shortfalls, and transit workers being laid off constitutes a drag on the economy, aside from the obvious trouble it will cause many others who rely on transit to get to work. Thus, the use of stimulus dollars is justified.
In an editorial, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune highlighted this quote, which sums up why transit funding needs to be in the stimulus bill: As Met Council Chair Peter Bell points out, “I’m not sure how much sense it makes hiring a construction worker at the same time you’re laying off a bus driver.”