A mass transit dilemma: Ridership up, funds
From the Los Angeles Times
A mass transit dilemma: Ridership up, funds down
Public transport systems are reeling from an economic crisis that
has dried up tax revenue and blown gaps in state budgets. They are
having to raise fares and cut services.
By Richard Fausset
January 27, 2009
Reporting from Miami - Demetrius McClain's late-morning commuter
train sped smoothly past strip malls and palm trees, heading north to
his job in Ft. Lauderdale, about 30 miles away.
McClain, a Web designer, started riding the train in May. The choice
between the train and his car was a no-brainer: Gas prices were more
than $3.60 a gallon and climbing. His commute on the Tri-Rail -- which
connects Miami to Ft. Lauderdale and points north -- cost him $4 per
day. Even with lower gas prices, the train still saves him money and
the aggravation of fighting traffic on clogged I-95.
But today, the Tri-Rail, like transit systems across the country, is
reeling from an economic crisis that has dried up local sales- and
property-tax revenue and blown open huge gaps in state budgets.
The regional transit authority that operates the South Florida trains
said it expects to lose $18 million in state and local funding in
October. That could mean cutting back from 50 trains per day to 20,
with most cuts coming on the non-rush-hour schedule McClain depends
"If it happens, I'm going to be forced to drive," he said.
"I'm not very happy about that -- but it's an adjustment I'll
have to make."
The dramatic spike in gas prices that began in 2005 sent Americans
flocking to trains, buses and subways, a trend that appears to have
held up even as gas prices have dipped. But 2009 could be a year of
crisis for the agencies that run them -- a time of more riders but
much less money.
Some new funding could come as part of House Democrats' proposed
$825-billion stimulus package, which, in its current form, sets aside
$9 billion for public transportation. But all of that money would be
used for new capital projects, not operating costs. And it is
operating budgets -- the money agencies need to run the systems they
have now -- that are getting hammered.
If service cuts or increased fares become widespread, transit
operators around the country fear they will drive away the new
converts they picked up when gas prices were high.
"What's happening in Miami is happening all over the country,"
said Joe Calabrese, chief executive of the Greater Cleveland Regional
Transit Authority. "For the layperson, it's very difficult to
understand that if ridership is at all-time high levels, how can we be
According to the American Public Transportation Assn., the third
quarter of 2008 saw the largest increase in ridership in a
quarter-century. Though national ridership numbers are not available
for the final quarter of last year -- when gas prices sank most
dramatically -- some agencies, like the South Florida Regional
Transportation Authority, which operates the Tri-Rail, continue to
report steady or increased ridership.
In Cleveland, ridership increased for the sixth consecutive year in
2008. But like every major public transit system in the country,
Cleveland's relies on both fares and tax revenue for funding -- and
county sales taxes, a key component of the budget, have plummeted in
the stalled economy, Calabrese said.
In the last 13 months, Cleveland riders have seen their fares raised
twice and services cut by 8%. Calabrese said another fare increase and
6% service cut may be necessary this year.
The shrinking tax revenues are particularly painful to transit systems
that continue to be hammered by high fuel costs: Many of them,
Calabrese said, are still locked in to high-price fuel contracts that
they thought were good bargains when gas was $4 per gallon.
Similar stories are cropping up around the nation. In Washington,
D.C., the Metro transit system, facing a 13% budget shortfall, is
considering cutting 900 jobs and enacting the largest service cuts in
its 33-year history. Atlanta's MARTA system faces a $57-million
deficit. Officials there are considering cutting weekend trains and
closing recently renovated train-station bathrooms.
The situation is particularly dire in California, where Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger, facing a $41-billion state budget shortfall, has
proposed eliminating grants to local transit agencies for the current
fiscal year and the next -- a move that would save $559 million,
according to H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the state Department of
In San Francisco, that possibility has transit officials considering
cuts to the popular Bay Area Rapid Transit trains -- even though they
were ripping out seats last year to cram in record numbers of
In Los Angeles, the transit system has avoided major service cuts,
said Marc Littman, a Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman.
But the elimination of the state subsidy -- which provides nearly 16%
of the MTA operating budget -- along with shrinking sales-tax revenue,
means tough choices lay ahead.
At their meeting Thursday, MTA board members discussed cutting 160,000
hours of bus service this year or next from the current 7.5 million
hours a year. The decision was delayed for at least a month as several
board members, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa,
indicated they were in no mood to cut so soon after voters approved
Measure R, the half-cent sales tax intended to fund a number of public
Those projects, which include the so-called Subway to the Sea, would
require a mix of local, state and federal funding to be realized. With
limited state and federal funding, those projects could be postponed,
Fare increases cannot be used to make up the difference -- at least
for a while. The L.A. ballot measure banned hikes in regular fares
until 2010, and forbids increases for seniors, students and the
disabled until 2013.
"We're in the situation where the public gave us their vote of
confidence, saying, 'Hey, we want to see more service out there, not
less -- and we want to keep the fares low, ' " Littman said.
The federal stimulus package, as currently proposed, could provide
money for sleeker trains and buses, and for expanded service. But many
agencies don't have the money to run the systems they have.
The American Public Transportation Assn., which lobbies on behalf of
local transit agencies in Washington, is hoping Congress will add $2.5
billion for operating expenses to the stimulus bill, which could go to
the House floor as early as next week.
"Today, transit systems of all sizes are cutting service and
planning immediate employee layoffs," wrote William W. Millar,
the APTA president, in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Jan.
16. "Public transportation services should not be cut when the
United States is attempting to reduce its levels of energy
In addition to general skepticism about the stimulus strategy, the
idea of using that money to fund transit operating costs may be a
particularly hard sell politically.
Ronald D. Utt, a research fellow at the conservative Heritage
Foundation, said such spending was essentially a way to avoid
subsidizing fares for transit riders. "That's really not
consistent with the purpose of the stimulus plan, which is to create
jobs," he said.
Proponents argue that operating subsidies would help the economy by
preempting transit layoffs. But some concede that it would only
temporarily address the core problem -- which is the decline in local
"You're only postponing the day of reckoning in terms of
generating more revenue for these programs," said Deron Lovaas,
federal transportation policy director for the National Resources
The crisis looming for Florida's Tri-Rail system stems from the
devastated real estate market in counties it serves: Miami-Dade,
Broward and Palm Beach. Officials in Palm Beach County, in particular,
have said they may have to cut about $3 million in funding to the
train system for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
For the transit authority, the total loss is multiplied because the
three counties have an agreement to fund the system at the same level
each year. The state would also pull its matching $9-million
contribution. The agency has been trying for years to convince state
lawmakers to fund the train with a $2 tax on rental cars, so far with
Jack L. Stephens, the transit authority's deputy executive director,
noted that the agency completed $450 million in improvements less than
two years ago, which allowed the system to expand from 28 to 50 trains
per day. "Now we potentially don't have the money to fulfill the
promise of that investment," he said. "It's crazy."
For some, the cuts will be an inconvenience, but for others the
consequences will be more serious. Lisandra Fonseca, 21, of Miami
relies on off-peak and weekend trains to get her to her job at a
McDonald's 30 miles north of home.
If the trains are mothballed, she said, "I'd just lose my
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Times staff writer Steve Hymon in Los Angeles contributed to this