Americans are relying more on public transportation than ever before, according to a report released Monday by the American Public Transportation Association. The rate of ridership has increased steadily in the last two years, with a 2.6 percent bump (or 7.9 billion trips) over the first three quarters of 2012.
Last year saw the second highest annual ridership since 1957, and the momentum seems to be growing. All forms of public transit, from buses to heavy rail like Amtrak, saw increases in ridership from January to September this year. Heavier use of public transit cuts down on use of fuel, carbon emissions, and congestion, while saving commuters time and money.
This encouraging trend toward public transit, however, could be easily stifled by Congress. Transportation funding is in dire straits, as APTA President Michael Melaniphy noted:
As Congress works to resolve our country’s deficit problem, it also needs to work to resolve the transportation deficit. Otherwise public transit and highway funding will be facing an annual $15 billion shortfall in the next 10 years. We continue to see that in areas where the local economy is improving and new jobs are being added, public transportation ridership is up. This makes sense since nearly 60 percent of the trips taken on public transportation are for work commutes. Public transit service is an important resource for employees and employers as it is instrumental in helping people travel to their jobs.
Though more and more people are relying on public transportation to get to work, Republicans are intent on further bankrupting these systems. The House GOP released a transportation bill in February that would have eliminated funding for mass transit systems, disproportionately hurting low-income urban communities for whom public transportation systems are the only way to get around. The bill failed, but Republicans continue to call for cuts to federal spending on transportation.
If a deal cannot be reached to avert the discretionary spending cuts in the so-called fiscal cliff next year, crucial public transportation programs will be essentially de-funded. One of the programs in danger is the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts Program, which awards grants for major projects like Washington’s metro line to Dulles International Airport and the Bay Area’s new line to the Oakland International Airport. Amtrak, which suffered serious damages from Hurricane Sandy in October, would lose $131 million. An austerity budget like the one proposed by Republicans could sabotage a steadily growing industry and cut off whole communities that are increasingly relying on mass transit systems.