Friday, March 27, 2009

Transit News ’Cross the Nation

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The Recovery Act provides $27.5B for Highway Infrastructure Investment, with a portion of that to support passenger and freight rail transit. The Act also allocates $8B to the states, with a priority on constructing high-speed intercity rail service, and an additional $1.3B for Amtrak. However, this money is going to capital costs, equipment replacement and repair, and system expansion. It does not support operating costs.

Transit funding in this country has been a struggle in recent times. For metro systems, federal transportation funding pays for a portion of capital costs, but for operating costs, transit systems are usually on their own. The relationship of funds from the farebox, the local region, and the state varies widely from place to place. In each region transit funding is linked to different taxes, allocation formulas, and political structures, creating a situation where in some regions the transit authority has the financial flexibility to invest in improving service, whereas in others the agency is constantly trying to stay afloat.

This background explains the diversity of news on the transit scene across the nation. Let's look at what's going on.

Of all of the transit systems in the U.S. New York’s MTA relies most heavily on its farebox to fund operating costs. That means without adequate state aid, when MTA needs money, its riders will pay the tab. As a result, on Wednesday the MTA board voted to cut service and raise fares to $2.50. MTA will eliminate two subway lines and 35 bus routes. Funny, I’ve never heard of states having to close major roads when they have budget shortfalls. Again, transit gets the short end of the stick (excuse my editorializing).

In Washington D.C. Metro is having similar operating funding woes, though not as severe as in the Big Apple. Metro will start holding hearings soon on cutting its MetroBus service, rather than raising fares. In Atlanta, MARTA is threatening major service cuts unless the state changes the structure of its funding and lifts restrictions on how it can flex its capital and operating dollars.

In contrast, Boston’s T is talking about service improvements, centered around transit-oriented development, with the opening of four new rail stations on the Fairmount Line. Seattle is also talking service expansion. Local transit advocates are bemoaning the city’s lack of support for a plan to install electric “e-trolleys,” but plans are moving ahead to expand streetcar lines. In greater Detroit, there is serious talk of building a regional transit system connecting the city to southeastern Michigan. With gas staying expensive and congestion clogging our metro areas, even the Motor City is looking at regional transit as a necessary solution.

The San Francisco Bay Area is looking at consolidating services of its 26 transit agencies, due to “sinking revenues and increased demand for public transit.” Many don’t realize that transit rarely makes money. As demand increases, so do costs, and the increased revenue from new riders is often less than the added costs to increase service. Transit agencies often do not have nearly enough capital dollars to pay for system expansions. In this sense, transit is no different than automobile transportation. They are both totally unaffordable without major subsidy. However, we spend 80% of our federal transportation dollars on roads and highways, while transit is much more efficient and cost-effective (darn, I'm editorializing again).

Ok, let’s keep rolling down the line. In Los Angeles the County Transportation Board is considering spending $300 million for new light-rail cars from an Italian company. Yep, the U.S. economy is tanking and yet our metro transit authorities often buy their rolling stock from foreign companies. SEPTA, in the Philadelphia region, recently bought its new regional rail cars from a South Korean company. Perhaps instead of bailing out the auto industry the fed should invest in U.S. companies that manufacture train cars (Just a crazy thought).

Speaking of the Philadelphia region, SEPTA announced its plans to offer a new one-day pass, serving a long-time need in this tourist-rich city. SEPTA has been trying to revamp its image and make investments while the tenuous state funding legislation provides a break from the agency’s ongoing funding crisis. PATCO, meanwhile, which is funded by bridge tolls, is planning a service expansion of its high-speed rail line through southern New Jersey. Also, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC) just released a feasibility study for expanding SEPTA’s Broad Street Subway to PIDC’s Navy Yard business center.

So, that’s the news from across this great nation of ours. And that concludes our journey today. Have a safe trip to your final destination, stand clear of the closing doors, and please, mind the gap.

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