Everyone knows that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. In our hectic jobs in public transit, we all spend time, possibly too much time, on issues that are the loudest, but possibly not the most important. The same is true with elected officials. They spend most of their time dealing with the loudest issues, but not always the most important. Because of that, funding for public transit suffers.
For example, the state of Ohio ranks seventh in the nation in population and 10th in transit ridership but only 28th in transit funding per capita. This disparity doesn’t stop elected officials from making continuous requests to keep our fares low and to provide more service to underserved areas, more service for both senior citizens and the disabled and more service to assist in our job access or welfare-to-work efforts.
Elected officials hear from their constituents about service and fare-related issues, but do they hear from our customers about transit funding issues? I think not, or certainly, not enough.
The sad political reality
In many states, including Ohio, transit funding is not increasing at or near the rate of inflation; it’s actually heading the other way. As a matter of fact, Ohio has cut transit funding over the past five years by more than 60%, from $44 million in 2001 to $18 million in 2005.
Granted, Ohio has budget problems and needs to address funding crises in education, healthcare, Medicaid and several other politically fashionable concerns. When asked about the crisis in public transit funding, most elected officials say, “What crisis?” And that’s the problem.
In most state capitals across the nation, there
is not a perceived crisis in transit funding, although we all know that one exists. Elected officials may hear about funding issues from you and me, but that doesn’t count. They need to hear it from the hundreds and thousands who need and want public transit to meet their individual and community needs.
The good news is that we have recently witnessed examples of additional funding being provided for public transit in a few states. The bad news is that these funding increases have only been approved after countless damaging service cuts and widespread fare increases.
Lawmakers can often recognize a crisis when it reaches crisis proportions, but they are not always willing to take action to head off that crisis in the first place. I know that’s the way it works (or worked) in New York, where I spent most of my transit life. Every several years, we would create a crisis, or the illusion of a crisis, so that an elected official could call a press conference, ride in on a white horse with a six-foot (made for prime-time TV) check and save the day.
Elected officials, taxpayers, customers and public interest groups demand that we run our agencies like businesses. And we have. Businesses, however, must have adequate resources or supplies to enable them to produce a quality product or service. In public transit, our supply lines are being cut off and we must do something about it now.
Finding a silver lining
With the strong support and leadership of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), we have done a great job of communicating the benefits of public transit, not just to those who use it, but also to those who don’t. We have mobilized the forces of transit agencies, suppliers and even the highway interests in pushing for a great reauthorization bill.
What we haven’t done, however, is figured out a way to adequately motivate riders on a local and statewide basis, to be loud and effective vocal advocates and demand more funding for public transit.
Many of our customers are outraged about perceived inadequate funding for education and healthcare, and others are passionate about the perception that there has been too much funding for the war against terror. Unfortunately, these same individuals appear to be mostly ignorant or totally apathetic when it comes to the public transit funding crisis.
Do our customers have too much confidence in transit managers? Do they think we can do it alone? After all, given the obstacles, we have done a great job. But it’s not getting easier.
As co-chair of APTA’s Coalition and Advocacy Committee, I know that our lack of success is not a function of our lack of will, or our lack of effort. So what do we need to do? I have an idea.
What if all the transit systems in the nation adopted a goal to create at least one funding crisis a month for the next year? Do you think that such activity would ignite advocacy for more transit funding, or just advocacy for the replacement of general managers? Whatever it takes, we must figure it out. Adequate transit funding must become a squeaky wheel in the eyes of elected officials. The quality of life of our customers and our nation depends upon it.
A call for beautiful music
We all know that an important skill for a general manager in the transit industry is the ability to pull the occasional “rabbit out of a hat” with regard to solving funding issues.
In an industry that has been striving to develop and operate quieter and quieter buses and trains, I think a new but equally important skill needs to be further developed.
Just as a conductor leads an orchestra to make beautiful music, we must learn to lead our customers and the public, through education and the building of coalitions, to make music as well. This music, however, although sounding beautiful to some, must sound to our elected officials like a squeaking wheel that just cannot be ignored.