Keep the Cars Running

by Ryan Avent

I was among those who hoped to see a strong transit component to the stimulus plan. I also recognized that transit spending would be limited by shovel-readiness — given the current federal emphasis on highway spending, there are limited transit projects available to expedite for stimulus’ sake — and that other bills would be more important for the long-run structure of transportation funding. This year, Congress will enact a replacement for the current law that governs spending on surface transportation projects, and which expires in September. We may also see a major energy bill passed, which could contain important provisions pertaining to transportation spending.

Still, most progressives wanted to see Congress do what it could for transit in the stimulus, and while the spending totals in the House version of the bill are smaller than had been recommended by James Oberstar, transit and rail projects are looking to get upwards of $10 billion over the next two years. The problem? It’s mainly capital spending. In a letter to the Washington Post, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority chairman Chris Zimmerman states the obvious:

Thanks to the economic crisis, Metro’s board of directors has been presented with a budget proposal for the next fiscal year that would cut almost 900 positions to close a budget gap of more than $170 million. On the menu are reductions in bus routes and in rail service hours, and the closing of some station entrances.

Unfortunately, the stimulus bill moving through Congress is aimed at capital projects, which are very important to the future of the region, but which do not address operating expenses.

It will be difficult to explain the logic of working on expansion while slashing service. If service levels are to be maintained, additional revenue will have to be found, either from increased state and local government subsidies, from federal aid or from Metro’s riders.

This was always the curious thing about the debate over transit in the stimulus. As tax revenues have fallen, transit budgets have been gutted, even as ridership has remained strong. Financial support for operations has essentially no effective delay — it’s immediately counter-cyclical, saving riders money and preventing job and spending cuts. And it’s also progressive and green and all the other stuff Obama said he wanted in a stimulus.


Senate Democrats will likely busy themselves trying, futilely, to get Republican support by adding tax cuts and reducing spending in the stimulus bill. It would be nice if instead they tried to actually improve the bill, by directing more money to transit operating expenses.