Facing the real 'crisis' in public transportation

Posted on September 17, 2009 by Frank Di Giacomo, Publisher

We have the highest ridership since the 1950s, record amounts of funding being spent and, yet, a new report is calling the state of the transit industry a "crisis." What is wrong with this picture?

More than many of us care to admit, it turns out. The report published in August, called "Stranded at the Station: The Impact of the Financial Crisis in Public Transportation," was not published by some long-standing opponents of the industry. Rather, it was commissioned by Transportation for America, the nationwide coalition of business, environment, health, transportation, government and redevelopment groups. It found that even though public transit ridership is at its highest since President Eisenhower launched the interstate highway system, nearly 90 percent of U.S. transit agencies have been forced to raise fares or cut service. It called the situation "an epidemic that did not have to happen" and urged greater federal support for transit.

That may be useful in the immediate future, but it does not address the real problem. The sooner we face up to the problem, the better we can deal with it.

The real issue may be on the cost side. For too long, through regulatory mandates but, also, a desire to offer the highest quality service money can buy, the industry costs have continued to go up. Fuel and construction material costs haven't helped much in recent years either, but our overall costs were going up in years when these were under control.

What other countries have done

The real cause of this may be that too much of the role of operating services is provided directly by government. Every other developed country has faced this and came to that conclusion. Britain solved it by shock therapy: It forced its public transportation industry to do without almost all subsidies. Of course, that's not a great answer, either, as the country saw its ridership plummet, taking a decade or more in some cases to recover. The industry did come back, though, and because it is operated by private companies with government oversight, London was able to expand service quickly, as the effects of congestion charges kicked in.

Others have done a little better, with a mix of private operations, often subsidized, and sometimes by forcing the government agencies operating service to compete against interested private companies. In Stockholm, despite heavy union representation, costs came under control and ridership continued to go up.

I am not suggesting an end to government in our industry here. There is a role for both public funding and long-term planning and oversight. What I am suggesting is that maybe it is time, especially when we are trying to figure out what our next authorization bill will look like, to look at international examples. Whatever we do, though, we need to start the conversation, and the talk must be honest.


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