Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Perfect Storm for Public Transportation in the United States?

The Good

The last two years have been an exciting time if you are an advocate of public transportation in the United States. Among other things, we have seen a major spike in gasoline prices, and although they seem to have stabilized somewhat have pushed people away from their personal automobiles and towards alternate means of transportation in record numbers. Case in point: Amtrak saw a 14% increase in ridership between July 2007 and July 2008. The poor economy has eroded some that increase, but ridership is still higher than it was at this point in 2007. It's also important to keep in mind that this is with a smaller system than Amtrak has ever had along with stagnant funding. Check out the master list vs. what service is in place today.

Ridership on public transit is up. Way up. In 2008, transit ridership was the highest since 1956! That's big. That's 52 years of highway dominance, out the window in one year.

Additionally, the winner of the 2008 Presidential campaign brought even greater hope by promising to invest in our long neglected transportation system along with our national infrastructure. This promise was highlighted by the symbolic train ride that the President-Elect and Vice President-Elect took from Philadelphia to the inauguration in Washington, D.C.

Things sure are good in the transportation world aren't they? Not so fast. Some big issues in America right now are forming together with the record success of transit to form a perfect storm of sorts that threatens to hamstring transportation development in this country, if not set cause a massive setback.

The Bad

While transit use is up, which is great, funding remains flat. Check out an article here in the Post gazette that touches on the issue. Local transit authorities are faced with increased demands on their infrastructure and calls for service expansion all while dealing with the same funding levels that they dealt with 5 years ago. In some cases, because of the hard economic times funding has even been cut, again, while ridership increased. The system is broken, that's not news. The Gas Tax hasn't increased in 16 years and the Highway Trust fund is broke. You can't get better transit if you don't have the money to pay for it.

The Ugly

The healthcare debate, among others swirling around Washington seem to have caused enough strife to further the notion that our current funding strategy will suffice for another 18 months. The Post Gazette covers it here . It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if the funding system doesn't work now, it will continue to not work for another 18 months. Things will stay about the way they are now. Ridership looks to stay high, and funding will be inadequate which will cause further cutbacks and potential fare increases.

Hope isn't completely lost for a new funding package before the September 30 deadline of the current deal, but an 18 month delay could cause a permanent halt to a funding overhaul and renewed emphasis on transit.

The political tides seem to be shifting. The tremendous support that the Obama administration and their policies enjoyed may be at least wavering. The Senate Committee charged with appropriating the initial $4 billion dollars of HSR funds decided only to appropriate $1.8 billion. While this is not the end of the discussion, the figures initially discussed are already being paired down. This does not bode well for future HSR funding. The same can be said of transit funding. If support for HSR is still high and the money is being cut, imagine what happens when the support dies down, or gas prices come down.

I don't want to be a Negative Nancy here, but in my mind, we as a nation are at a crossroads. The demand for transit is there (and hopefully will continue to rise). What is missing is political will. If we put transportation in the back seat and don't fund it now and fund it properly, our best case scenario is we will have what we have now. Aging infrastructure, too many roads, and not enough alternate forms of transportation. That's the BEST case scenario.

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