Important milestones have shaped each decade of the past century and, in most cases, gone well beyond normal expectations. The turning points below were not necessarily planned with the consequences in mind, but they helped shape the industry’s journey through the past century.
1.1900-1910: Big Apple’s ferry takeover. New York’s takeover of the Staten Island Ferry sparked the beginning of public-sector bail-outs of private transit services, a process culminating in the massive bail-outs and creation of regional districts in the 1960s, which organized the industry of today.
2.1910-1920: Enter the bus. Beginning with the Cleveland Railway in 1912, public transportation began to operate both buses and trains in the same systems in order to preserve networks and keep declining lines productive. Like most successful marriages, they have beautiful synergy — but they have their moments, too.
3.1920-1930: The highway boom begins. In 1921, the Federal Highway Act began the widening gap between what government spends on roads versus what it spends on public transit of all other kinds. Additional policies and the public’s growing ability to afford autos certainly contributed to the shift in modal use, but this law marks where at least the official policy favoritism began — and arguably the source of the real problem.
4.1930-1940: The feds begin their rescue. Almost as soon as Uncle Sam got comfortable in the road-building business, the Great Depression hit. The devastation brought about FDR’s New Deal, one program of which was the Public Works Administration (PWA). PWA funds were first used in 1936 to rebuild a few rail transit lines — thus beginning the federal rethinking about its role in transit.
5.1940-1950: Living side by side. In 1943, Los Angeles’ Pacific Electric Railway opened a line in the median of an automobile expressway. It did so because the land was available in a well-traveled corridor, and the highway builders deemed it too expensive and impractical to use as more roadway. Plus, Pacific Electric paid good money for it. Considered novel at the time, it is now thought to be a basic option in any corridor evaluation study.
6. 1950-1960: Rosa refuses to get — or give — up. Looking back now, it seemed not only expected, but inevitable. To those on the bus that day, Rosa Parks was an unlikely lightning rod for a movement. “I was just tired,” she said, presumably about her reason for not moving to the back of the bus that day. To those seeking equal access in transportation, the barriers will fall when those frustrated by them are too tired. Let it be hope and admonition alike for those involved in public transportation.
7.1960-1970: Minneapolis’ Nicollet Mall opens. This 1968 event gave us more than the backdrop for the Mary Tyler Moore Show’s opening. It also showed cities how good transit and urban form are symbiotic, a concept copied in Portland, Ore., Denver — and hopefully many more.
8.1970-1980: Amtrak’s bailout. Beginning with the 1971 bail-out of Penn Central that formed Amtrak, Uncle Sam got into the operating assistance business, which spread to urban services for roughly 20 years. Many did not think it would last for intercity rail either — a controversy that remains.
9.1980-1990: Reagan’s “jobs bill.” The Gipper agreed to a 1983 nickel hike in the federal gas tax as a “user fee” to generate jobs and jump-start a moribund economy. The penny reserved for transit began what was to become the cornerstone of our industry’s current federal guaranteed funding.
10.1990-2000: Clinton’s “deficit tax” comes home. What was first floated as deficit filler, a “Btu tax” was hounded out of town even by his own party. The 1993 compromise was a gas tax, and its return to the Highway Trust Fund — with transit’s fair share going to its proper home, too — laid the groundwork for the record increases and guarantees of TEA 21. It also aggravates a growing problem in this century: How to pay for future project demand as vehicles get more efficient and use less gas?