Moving through the Recession, Part 2: Service Cuts Continue
Transit service cuts are affecting riders across the country, and show no signs of slowing.  Photo: Environmental Defense Fund blog.

Transit service cuts are affecting riders across the country, and show no signs of slowing. Photo: Environmental Defense Fund blog.

This is the second installment of TheCityFix’s series Moving through the Recession, which explores how the worldwide economic slowdown has impacted transportation systems and users locally, nationally and internationally. Check back often for updates to our twice-weekly series.

Until now, the top story in U.S. recession-era transportation has been the widespread service cuts being implemented by transit agencies.  Though some analysts have claimed the economy is improving, these cuts show no signs of slowing.

Due to declines in property and sales tax revenue, more than 80 percent of public transit systems in the United States have seen flat or decreased funding from local, regional, and state sources.  As a result, service cuts, layoffs and fare increases are affecting transit agencies across the country, as you can see on Transportation for America’s United States of Transit Cutbacks map.  Nearly 90 percent of transit systems in the country have had to cut service or raise fares in the past year.  Among the 25 largest transit operators, 10 agencies are raising fares more than 13 percent.

It seems that the worst of these cuts is yet to come.  In just the past week, cuts have been announced or proposed at NJ Transit, Chicago’s Regional Transportation Authority, Louisville, KY’s transit authority, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, Kansas City’s bus service and more.

What will the impacts of these service cuts be?  We won’t understand their full effects for years, but we can make some educated guesses.  Overall, they will likely cause a decrease in ridership.  In our first installment of the series, we covered the U.S.’s recent declines in transit ridership.  With the deadly combination of service cuts and fare increases, it will become less convenient and more expensive for people to take transit, and ridership will continue to fall.

How and where agencies are making cuts will affect the specific impacts.  Among those public transit systems reducing service, 65 percent have eliminated or reduced off-peak service and nearly half have reduced the geographic coverage of transit service.  Both types of cuts are likely to hurt the transit-reliant population, the majority of who are low-income, minority, or seniors.  These riders are particularly vulnerable to transit cuts because they are more likely to travel on routes that are less cost-effective for transit operators to provide, to travel at off-peak times, and to utilize paratransit services that may be eliminated when regular service is cut.  Service cuts have very real implications for these riders.  They have fewer alternative transportation options and may not be able to reach everyday destinations such as jobs, education and health care without adequate public transit.

Reducing the geographic coverage of transit service may also impact “choice riders,” those who do have alternate transportation means but elect to ride the bus or train.  If routes near their homes are cut, suburban commuters may shift back into their cars, increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

To plug gaps in their operating budgets, many systems are being forced to shift capital funds into operations, with potential negative long-term impacts on system condition and reliability.  Many see this as essentially robbing tomorrow’s transit users, as it would reduce the ability to maintain and upgrade systems in the future, leading to further degradation.  This could drag us into a dangerous downward spiral.

So what do we do about this?

We must establish that funding public transit is a federal priority.  We need a broad, inspiring national vision that puts transit first.  This would form part of a package of important environmental, economic and social initiatives, complementing existing efforts to spur economic development, address climate change, and improve public health.  President Obama’s vision for high speed rail is a step in the right direction.

To realize this vision, policymakers must address the flaws in our federal transportation funding systems.  While much of the transit funding crisis is the result of the economic downturn, the widespread cuts to this basic service have served to draw attention to the fact that the funding base for public transportation is insufficient and vulnerable.  And while financial support from states and localities is important, they can’t go it alone.  Federal policy and funding determine our level of commitment to quality public transport.

Unfortunately, existing federal transportation policy is a roadblock to America’s current goals of addressing climate change, promoting smarter growth, and improving public health.  Only 18 cents of every transportation dollar spent supports transit, and to make that situation worse, communities are required to supply a much larger matching amount compared to federally supported highways.

What’s more, transit systems are not able to spend federal funds on operating costs.  Instead, they are restricted to utilizing these dollars for capital expenditures — construction and new equipment.  So, in other words, these funds might be able to buy a new bus, but they won’t necessarily be able to afford a driver to operate it.  (For a step-by-step summary of how this dilemma is playing out in Sacramento, Calif., for instance, read this.)

To combat this long-standing problem, transit advocates hope to do so through the upcoming transportation authorization.

The bill drafted by Chairman James Oberstar and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee included a proposed increase in public transit investment and greater flexibility in how federal funds are used.

Additionally, a transportation bill could incorporate HR 2746, a provision sponsored by representatives Russ Carnahan (D-MO) and Doris Matsui (D-CA) that would allow large transit agencies to use federal formula transportation funds to maintain service and affordable fares.  Federal transit funds could be spent on operating assistance if the state or local government were also to increase its level of support for the transit system, leveraging federal funds to increase overall public transportation funding.  The bill also allows transit systems to use federal funds for operating expenses that achieve energy savings or greenhouse gas reductions through expanded service.

Furthermore, Congressional leaders could allow the allocation of cap and trade revenues in climate change legislation for public transportation.

However, in the short term, transit agencies are going to have to make some tough decisions.  When making service cuts, planners will need to balance equity and environmental considerations (see how Portland’s TriMet is doing it).  New sources of revenue will also need to be tapped, some of which will require the bold step of charging user fees to motorists.  Up to now, congestion pricing and road tolling efforts have famously failed, but the crumbling of our country’s public transit services – necessary for environmental sustainability, economic progress and social equity – means our leaders are going to have to get serious about finding reliable funding sources.

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