Beyond the Bay, Budget, California, Transit Funding

“Stranded at the Station”

Transportation for America and the Transportation Equity Network have released a new joint report, Stranded at the Station, that is only a few dozen pages (including colorful pictures) and well worth your time to read. The report, which builds on T4America’s well-circulated maps that compile transit budget crunches from around the nation, clarifies the perverse situation at the federal level that has sent struggling transit operators’ budgets reeling. There is, of course, the funding inequity that exists from the get-go: the fact that roads are given far more money than transit (18% for transit and 82% for roads); and the fact that local governments fully match funds for transit projects, as compared to road projects, for which a quarter match suffices. Coupled with the fact that the federal funding is used to shore up capital costs rather than to offset operating deficits, which is what is needed most just right now, and we have a ready-made recipe for fare hikes and service cuts — that unfortunate combination of events that dispatches choice riders away from transit and back to their cars — and which simply leaves the transit-dependent stranded at the station.

But it is not useful to expand transit networks and purchase new vehicles unless we have the tools in place to successfully operate and safeguard the security of the existing network in the long-term. That can be in part achieved by giving operators the flexibility to use federal dollars for operating costs, if not by funding operations outright. And as we have seen, transit ridership in this country has reached its highest point since 1956. Now is the time to capitalize on that success, not to shy away from it.

The report also documents — painfully — how the defects of this policy have played out across the country, clarifying how cutting off lifeline transit routes directly contradicts our alleged commitment to equity, increasing mobility, and improving the environment. The report includes several case studies that demonstrate the need for a true paradigm shift in the next transportation reauthorization.

Fare increases around the nation. Courtesy of Transportation for America.

Unsurprisingly, in light of the zeroing out of State Transit Assistance (STA) operating funds in the current (and future) budgets, California has the dubious distinction of containing within its borders an especially high concentration of the worst fare hikes. California, despite passing landmark climate change legislation, has repeatedly robbed supposedly safeguarded transit funds to balance the state budget, and the effect is pronounced, as the above map (excerpted from the report) shows. That situation will hopefully be set right at least in part, if the state’s highest court deems those raids to illegal.

Meanwhile, the report lists Muni and BART as having two of the highest deficit projections in the nation, as a percentage of operating costs (17% and 8% respectively). Muni and BART have also instituted some of the steepest increases in the nation to base fare (33% and 17% respectively). This is, as we know, only part of the story here in the Bay Area — where numerous operators, large and small alike (including AC Transit, Caltrain, County Connection, SamTrans, Tri Delta Transit, VTA, and Wheels) join still further operators throughout California in raising fares and/or slicing service in response to budgetary challenges.



7 thoughts on ““Stranded at the Station”

  1. Much as I am pleased at gains in transit usage, I would remind all that in 1956 there were half as many residents in the US, so equaling ridership ## is really only half as a % per cent .

    Posted by DAVID VARTANOFF | 18 August 2009, 11:16 pm
  2. Well yeah, getting back to the same per capita transit ridership is a different story, and not really possible with existing funding priorities. What we’re looking at here are smaller (although still welcome) increases in transit usage within, and despite, the existing road-dominated paradigm.

    Posted by Eric | 18 August 2009, 11:41 pm
  3. 18% of funding, but transit is low single digits for ridership share. Think it already gets enough funding. if you want to improve it, bring down labor costs.

    Posted by David | 24 August 2009, 3:54 pm
  4. @David: The lifetime of infrastructure projects is at least a half-century, so you cannot simply look at this years funding (or even the past decade’s funding) and say “transit gets enough funding because it has a low mode share.” When compared to the trillions of dollars that America has invested in roads and highways over the past 60 years, as well as subsidies to the oil and automobile industries, transit’s subsidy is proportionally waaay lower than its current mode share.

    Posted by Daniel | 25 August 2009, 1:29 am


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