While the stimulus spending has been rightly celebrated for funding mass transit infrastructure construction and upgrades, urban mass transit systems are facing budget deficits that are forcing them to make debilitating cuts in service. So, while federal stimulus funds are being used to encourage mass transit use through tax incentives — a worthy goal, of course — a commuter’s ability to take advantage of those incentives is diminished. In New York City, the MTA is cutting subway and bus lines, and, as The New York Times reports, the elderly and disabled will find their mobility severely limited. (Bus route closings are particularly bad for those groups because the subways in New York are, shamefully, not fully accessible to people with disabilities, so they are especially dependent on sometimes little-used bus lines.) Commercial corridors that depend on mass transit to deliver shoppers, such as Third Avenue in Bay Ridge, may also find that their business suffers. In St. Louis, the disabled and poor are finding their lives severely restricted by closed bus lines as well.
In Washington, D.C. services are being expanded and contracted simultaneously. On Monday, Mayor Adrien Fenty and members of the City Council gathered on the corner of 16th St and Columbia Rd, NW to inaugurate a new express bus line. Sixteenth Street, which runs from Silver Spring, Md., to the White House through some of D.C.‘s most vibrant and quickly changing neighborhoods, suffers from terrible bus service. The buses bunch in distant clusters and are often over-crowded. But at the same time that Fenty and other politicians were crowing to the crowd of reporters, city officials and the odd civic busybody, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is contemplating service cuts. A spokesperson for WMATA told me the public hearings regarding which bus lines would be cut to close a $27 budget deficit will be held in mid-April.
Although President Obama and the Democratic Congress are not responsible for any of these problems, they are responsible for not enacting a solution. If there is a second stimulus, operating funds for mass transit should be a top priority.
Ben Adler is a journalist in New York. He is a former reporter for Grist, The Nation, Newsweek and Politico, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The New Republic.