Public transportation in high demand; yet underfunded and stressed

Gas in NYC
In a society nurtured on cheap gasoline, the high fuel prices are having disparate effects: the end of free pizza deliveries at major franchises, a plunge in the sales of sport-utility vehicles, a steep drop in the price of houses that are far from jobs or mass transit. – Washington Post, June 10, 2008

With more Americans enduring pain at the pump, they’re turning to public transportation in record numbers. They are looking for and finding alternatives to filling up the gas tank and getting on the train, streetcar, or bus.

But at the same time, many underfunded and subsequently under-maintained transit systems are facing budget shortfalls, job cuts, and service cuts. Demand is going up for transit nationwide, but many systems are having a hard time meeting the demand. After all, buses (and some trains) also run on the same expensive gasoline, though they use it more efficiently by moving more people. And investments in new capacity (or even regular maintenance) have been neglected in some places. MARTA in Atlanta is facing another shortfall this year, and is cutting jobs as a result.

There was an appropriately timed editorial in the Washington Post this weekend about the sad state of our public transportation infrastructure — and the need to invest in it to keep America moving in an age of high gas prices:

The rush to mass transit is accentuating what has been plain for years — that America’s investment in its public transportation infrastructure is glaringly, perilously inadequate. The gasoline tax, which provides the main source of transportation and transit revenue, has not been increased since 1993. As a funding source it is being dangerously eroded by inflation and Americans’ decreased driving mileage.

Anyone who has used public transportation in Western Europe, Australia or Japan is struck by the fact that U.S. transit is decades behind the state of the art. China, too, is investing heavily in building public transportation infrastructure. The fact that the vast bulk of transit ridership in the United States is concentrated in the 50 top metropolitan areas, which together account for almost two-thirds of economic activity in the United States, underscores the critical link between public transportation and American competitiveness. If America continues to neglect transit, it will stunt its own economic prospects.

AP photograph by Patrick Sison