Monday, April 27, 2009

The best plan for transit funding

It seems that every spring in Pittsburgh, there are certain things we can all take for granted. The flowers bloom, the days get warmer, and the Port Authority begins to talk about its next round of service cuts and fare hikes because they have a budget deficit. It's a frustrating concept, especially with the 15% service cuts of two years ago, and the fare hikes of last year*. It's made even more frustrating knowing that transit usage is up all over the country, including Pittsburgh. There are a million blogs that have a million discussions on this topic, and for every discussion, there are a million more extremely polarized ideas about how to solve the problem. The ideas tend to mirror people's personal opinions about transit. The pro-transit people want dedicated funding that can be adjusted for inflation. Anti-transit advocates want less money for transit, smarter spending by transit agencies, and in general, and privatization of transit agencies.

To be fair, I don't know if either end of the spectrum is really going to work. However, Cap'n Transit Rides Again has a great post about this very subject. One of the topics he discussed was transit profitability, and he cited examples of bus companies that run out of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City and also operate for a profit. One reader who commented on his post brought up an outstanding point, and perhaps an outstanding idea for funding transit agencies.

The reason these ventures are successful is because they have a much lower overhead than a transit agency would because they are paying for equipment (i.e. buses) and drivers. They do not have to put any sizeable amount of money into the right of way they are using (the highway) other than the same taxes that everyone else pays, and perhaps tolls. Basically, they have a right of way given to them and maintained for them at little cost. This reader's next point was to say, why not expand this idea to transit agencies across the country? Take State and Federal funds, purchase, build and maintain rights of way at public expense (just like what we do with highways now). Make it the transit agency's responsibility to purchase, operate, and maintain the vehicles, whether they are buses, subways, trolleys, heavy rail vehicles etc. This would be analogous to the State of Pennsylvania/USDOT building a right of way, and PENDOT maintaining that right of way for the Port Authority. I know, PENDOT is not always the most efficient organization in, but they get the job done on thousands of miles of highway across the state. This could make some people mad, but it's no different than what everyone experiences now with our highways. The State, and Federal governments build and maintain the highways and we drive them, more or less for free (aside from the taxes collected to maintain them).

I'm not going to sit here and tell you I have it all figured out, but something has to give. There is more of a demand for transit now than anytime in the last 30 years, but the funding has not caught up with that demand. Additionally, many conservative Americans seemed to be poised for a backlash against the transit spending that must occur to bring our transit systems up to the level they should be at.


*I'm sure that some reader's first comments will likely have to do with inefficiencies at the Port Authority and how all their financial problems stem from that issue. I will grant you, that they do have inefficiencies; they still have labor costs that they must mitigate, and I don't get a warm and fuzzy feeling that the agency is a well oiled machine. However, I also don't believe that they should remain underfunded. Even if these inefficiencies were solved, there would still be a budget deficit. I think operational reform should go hand in hand with a plan to properly fund their operations.

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