Despite plenty of claims to the contrary, the stimulus passed in February 2009 was actually pretty effective in preserving jobs — at least when it comes to transit. In approving $6.9 billion for transit agencies to complete capital and maintenance work, roughly doubling the typical annual federal allocations, the legislation kept most transportation agencies in the red, despite falling local and state tax revenues virtually everywhere.
Unfortunately, more than a year after the bill’s passage, its positive effects have mostly worn off, and transit users across the nation are crying for mercy. Transportation for America, a national advocacy group, has documented with an interactive map how service cuts and fare increases have affected almost every municipality in the country. (A screen shot is shown above.)
At the extreme, Clayton County Georgia eliminated bus service entirely earlier this month.
But just pointing at the reduction in operations won’t bring them back, and that’s why the Transportation Equity Network (TEN) has plans to stage a number of protests this week and next, highlighting just how difficult the situation is getting for those who rely on buses and trains to get around.
TEN’s mission is to improve transportation, with goals of improving equity for low-income and minority groups. It is a coalition of more than 350 community organizations in 41 states.
Stephen Boykewich, TEN’s media director, told me that the group’s goal was to “Raise public awareness of how extensive the impact of these transit cuts are.” It’s in Atlanta that TEN has made its argument most strongly. Boykewich’s group and the local transit union, “Have painted giant red Xs on buses and subways to show visually just how drastic the cuts are going to be,” said Boykewich.
Atlanta’s MARTA system is considering eliminating 30 percent of all routes.
TEN will promoting similar events in Washington, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Kansas City, and Saint Louis between now and April 28th.
These aren’t futile protests: though most transit systems don’t have hidden dollars available to spend on making sure buses and trains keep running, there’s a bill currently under consideration in Congress that could relieve the pressure. Senate Bill 3189, sponsored by Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, would allow transit agencies to use thirty to fifty percent of their federal dollars on operating expenses.
Currently, the money sent to local jurisdictions by Washington must be spend on capital expenses. Says TEN’s Boykewich, “We believe that transit agencies ought to at least have the option to use transit funds for operations.”
For starving transit agencies, that’s probably a fair assessment: this year may be the right time to allow cities to hold off on construction activity if they can transfer the dollars to more vital expenses like maintaining current operations.
TEN is certainly making a big show of its interest in ensuring adequate transit, but whether its efforts will be rewarded with an influx of more money for transit agencies remains unknown.
Yonah Freemark is a senior research associate in the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center. His research focuses on the intersection of land use, affordable housing, transportation and governance.