From today’s ClimateWire
MASS TRANSIT: Carrying more riders and getting less money, urban systems seek help (03/18/2009)
Saqib Rahim, E&E reporter
In two weeks, the van will stop coming. And at that point, Bren Pathenos doesn’t know how her son will get to work.
Her son, 30-year-old William Jenkins, has cerebral palsy, a brain condition that requires him to walk on special crutches. For the last three years, he has held a full-time job at Maritz Inc., a corporation headquartered just outside St. Louis.
Every morning, he climbs aboard a Call-a-Ride van run by Metro St. Louis, the local transit authority. It’s a 45-minute trek from his family’s home in the city’s Manchester suburb. It costs $4.
But at the end of this month, everything will change. And unwelcome changes may be in store for many transit riders. While they may be riding more — partly to reduce emissions and energy costs — the systems they ride are being starved for cash. And unless that conundrum is resolved, transit leaders warn, you can forget about making transit the backbone of a climate-saving strategy.
Nearly half of Metro St. Louis’ bus routes will be cut, and the MetroLink light rail will eliminate one of every five trains. Fares will be hiked by 50 cents. The Call-a-Ride service William uses will retreat closer to the city center, leaving him with only one way to commute: a $25 cab ride.
“All of his life, from birth on, I have taught William to be very independent,” Pathenos, 57, said. “How can they take away people’s independence after we’ve worked and struggled so hard?”
These should be heady times for Metro St. Louis, whose ridership is up 7 percent since 2007. But after years of pinching and trimming, Metro’s $50 million annual deficit has it waving the white flag. A dwindling local sales tax and erratic oil prices have worn away at its bottom line. Now Metro must lay off more than a fifth of its 2,300 employees, including drivers and administrative staff.
The origin of the crisis is partly local, but partly a big national problem. Transit funding has run up against a finance problem: It gets much of its cash from automobile drivers.
A trust fund that is being drained
Most federal transportation spending comes from a pot called the Highway Trust Fund, which is funded by taxes on gasoline and truck parts. The rationale has been to charge highways’ main users — gasoline consumers — for the roads’ maintenance. Starting in 1983, a fraction of these funds has been set aside for transit projects — with nearly all of the rest going to highway funding.
But the trust fund is crumbling. First, the gas tax hasn’t been adjusted in many years, so inflation has whittled away its value. Second, fuel efficiency in cars has reduced the amount collected, even though driving is up.
The fund even needed an $8 billion bailout last September to stay solvent. The problem isn’t solved — the fund is thinning again, and it could very well evaporate before the end of this fiscal year.
As these dollars disappear, transit systems find their lists of problems getting longer.
When agencies apply for the federal money, they don’t get full discretion on its use. Federal dollars may be used for capital expenses, such as new buses, train depots or rail lines. But when it comes to the “operations” bill — driving vehicles, paying employees and purchasing fuel — transit agencies are on their own.
The arrangement has left transit providers in an accelerating struggle in recent years, battling high energy costs even as riders flocked to transit to avoid those very gas prices. Ridership spiked, reaching its highest level in half a century last year, according to a recent survey by the American Public Transportation Association.
“If you’re feeling a little bit tired, it’s because you’re the athletes setting those records every year,” Bill Millar, president of APTA, told transit heads at a conference in Washington last week.
The officials from the country’s many transit systems, small and large, had converged on Washington to make their voices heard in Congress. They thanked lawmakers for passing a stimulus bill that provided $8.4 billion for public transportation and another $8 billion for high-speed rail. And they were eager to discuss major legislation that could come up this fall.
They are hoping for a massive transportation reauthorization bill that can replace the expiring Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, or SAFETEA-LU, which former President George W. Bush signed in 2005. APTA has pushed for a six-year bill that would total $123 billion a year, with funds going to all forms of surface transportation, including highways.
The conference went silent when a highway representative claimed that transit and highway funds aren’t necessarily at odds. “We need you to succeed because we can’t keep up with the rate of traffic growth in this country,” said John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
Wanted: a long-term solution
In the coming years, Horsley said, hundreds of thousands of baby boomers will find themselves living outside urban areas but in need of services, so it won’t be possible to take transit funding away from highways. “I don’t think that argument works, because so many people drive,” he said.
Others took a righteous tone, insisting that when energy prices soared, it was public transit agencies that took the brunt of the blow, maintaining service even as their budgets sank into the red.
“We’re not asking for a bailout here in D.C.,” said Dale Marsico, who directs the Community Transportation Association of America, a pro-transit nonprofit, at the conference. “We are people that just don’t make promises — we keep promises.”
Other transit backers piled on, arguing that a massive federal investment in all modes of transit would meet multiple goals: reducing road congestion, cutting emissions and saving gasoline.
By the looks of it, mass transit proponents also have champions in the federal government.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood won applause when — saying he was speaking on his own behalf, not President Obama’s — he said he wanted to be “open-minded” about how transit agencies can use federal dollars, implying that he would consider moves to let states spend cash on operations.
Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he hopes to pass a bill in the House by the first week of June.
Others in the government are looking for a long-term solution: severing transit funding from the world of automobiles once and for all.
A bill presented by Rep. Earl Blumenauer last week, called the Clean Low-Emissions Affordable New Transportation Equity Act, or CLEAN-TEA, would dedicate 10 percent of revenues from a cap-and-trade bill to a fund for emissions-reducing transportation projects. Cities and localities that put together an emissions-cutting transportation plan could apply to the government for cash to build sidewalks, promote biking or invest in transit projects.
“We think by giving people tools and resources, an incentive to look at basic elements rather than just patterns of sprawl … we’ll have literally a very, very profound effect on energy use, carbon footprint and, frankly, the quality of life for our citizens,” Blumenauer said in an interview.