I will show my age when I say that I remember the last of the streetcars being ripped up to make way for the automobile. Fifty some odd years latter, it seems every city in America is betting its economic future on new light rail systems. Therein lies the story of the modern American experience with transit.
After throwing transit away, we now want it back. We just don'êt want to pay for it.
Public transit — bus and rail — has experienced its first decade-long ridership expansion in over half a century. With people moving into older neighborhoods, with auto use growing ever more expensive, we seemed to be stumbling toward national support for transit.
But national political and economic trends are pointing toward a potentially grim future for the nation's transit systems. At the operating level, 90 percent of all transit systems report flat or declining local financial support. Ninety percent of transit systems indicate state support for their systems was flat or declining. Costs, in the form of petroleum and electric power, are continuing to rise. Transit ridership for this most recent 12 months has declined by 4.5 percent, not really too bad considering the 10 percent unemployment rate, but still a decline in revenues. The net result is that 84 percent of all transit systems report that they reduced routes or raised fares in the last year.
Nationally, revenue into the Highway Trust Fund, which helps support the nation'ês transit systems as well as roads, is experiencing a continued decline. The trust fund's revenue comes from an 18.7 cents per gallon gas tax. Because cars and trucks are getting more fuel efficient, there is less revenue coming into the fund. In addition, the total vehicle miles of travel in the U.S. for this calendar year seems to be down slightly, compounding the trust fund's revenue problems. Congress has dodged the problem of declining revenues, instead choosing to pump general fund revenues into the fund to keep it afloat, now to the tune of $70 billion.
The surprise for Congress has been the lack of pressure to raise revenue for the road and transit programs. The authorization for these transportation programs expired last October and have been on a series of life-support extensions ever since. The old magic of expanding the programs with larger authorizations and heavy infusions of earmarked projects (pork to us) has collapsed.
The current House transportation reauthorization bill envisions a massive expansion in the program, but has no way to pay for it. The result is that there is no movement on reauthorizing these two programs and no way to expand the existing revenues. It is certain that there will not be a bill this year, and almost as much certainty there'll be none next year. There may not be a real reauthorization bill until 2013.Lest we label the Congress as the sole culprit here, the White House has been totally disengaged on this set of issues. It just insists there will be no tax increases for transportation.
Lest we label the Congress as the sole culprit here, the White House has been totally disengaged on this set of issues. It just insists there will be no tax increases for transportation. It's even rejected a study of the vehicle-miles-of-travel tax issue. The administration story is that the necessary financing for transportation will come through public-private partnerships (the ghost of the George Bush position).
Why does this matter to transit? The outcome of this gridlock is that there will not be any additional revenue going to highways and transit, and that the gap will once again be filled with general fund appropriations for FY 2011. If there is no new revenue coming into the trust fund and there is tremendous pressure on reducing the deficit, there is a great chance that these programs will have to shrink in FY2012 to live within lower appropriations level (perhaps a 20 percent reduction).
The reality of this struck the highway industry with a mild sense of panic. Some highway leaders have begun to talk openly about one solution to this dilemma: to have the current gas tax pay solely for the traditional highway programs, while transit and some other smaller programs would be pushed out of the trust fund and into the general fund. That move might cover the next five or six years of highway funding and keep its contract authority intact.
It would also fully expose transit to the pressures that the entire general fund budget is going to be facing in the next five years. At a time of growing long-term transit ridership and demands for new investment, it would be an unmitigated disaster.
There would no longer be the flexibility to shift funds from highways to transit. There would no longer be contract authority for transit to enter into multi-year projects, and there would be the unmistakable message that highway projects are more important than transit projects.
There was a hope that a climate change bill would be able to create a funding source for transit, since transit has so many energy benefits. But the climate bill seems to be as dead as the highway bill.
Any move by the highway industry to push transit out the door would destroy 40 years of an urban-rural alliance that supported both highways and transit. It would also ignore the nation's newfound interest in building new transit systems and capacity.
The terrible thing here is that the transit industry does not seem to recognize the dire threat before it. Congress appears incapable of negotiating a solution to this crisis and the administration, which should be at the front of this debate, is too distracted by other issues to take any action at all.
This is like watch a train wreck in slow motion.
Distributed by Citiwire.net.