Wednesday, September 10, 2008

More Money for Mass Transit

Increased ridership and crowded buses due to high gas prices are popular topics on this and other blogs. At Capital Metro, we’re facing the same challenges as transit providers across the country. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal took a closer look at this issue and the possibility of additional federal funding:

Congress Weighs Boosting Funds for Mass Transit
Wall Street Journal

Momentum is building in Congress to increase funding for public transportation as transit agencies struggle to accommodate increased demand from Americans seeking to escape high gas prices.

The Senate banking committee will hold a hearing Tuesday to examine how the government can strengthen mass-transit options as a way to reduce dependence on imported oil. Meanwhile, House and Senate leaders debating a new energy bill are considering a range of incentives and new funding for transit agencies.

On Monday, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) said a measure that would provide as much as $2 billion in grants and other funding for public transportation appears likely to be included in energy legislation that could be voted on next week. The House has already approved a bill that would provide an additional $1.7 billion to transit agencies over two years. If Congress fails to pass a new energy package this month before adjourning for its election-season recess, a transit-funding boost could still be included in an end-of-session budget resolution.

The legislative push comes as high gas prices are spurring Americans to drive less and use public transportation more. Data being released Tuesday by the American Public Transportation Association show the number of riders on mass-transit systems is growing at an accelerating clip. After rising 2.5% in 2007 from 2006, public-transportation use increased 3.4% in the first quarter of 2008 from the same period a year earlier, and 5.2% in the April-to-June period.

The increased demand is straining many transit agencies, which are already coping with higher prices for fuel, steel and other commodities.

"We are stretched to our limits," said Fred Hansen, general manager of TriMet, a regional mass-transit system in the greater Portland, Ore., area that operates bus and light-rail service. "We need help."

Ridership has risen modestly over the years, Mr. Hansen said, but recently there has been a significant spike. These days, the number of passengers on his trains and buses is around 12% higher than it was a year ago, he said.

Mr. Hansen has taken a number of steps to accommodate some of the new riders, even though he lacks the extra buses and rail cars he needs to greatly expand service. Among them: Keeping older buses in circulation longer, and asking area employers to alter starting times to reduce crowding during peak periods.

TriMet raised fares earlier this month. An "all zone, one-way" fare has risen 25 cents to $2.30. TriMet isn't alone. According to a survey of 115 transit agencies being released Tuesday by APTA, more than 60% of mass-transit systems are considering fare increases and 35% are considering service cuts. Both findings reflect the cost pressures from energy prices that are making it hard for transit officials to maintain service levels at a time when demand is surging.

Mr. Hansen said his agency can stay afloat with its current funding structure, which primarily depends on locally generated revenue. But a greater federal role is needed to enable major service expansions, he said.

Andy Darrell, vice president at New York-based Environmental Defense Fund, plans to deliver a similar message to the Senate banking committee Tuesday.

"What we're seeing around the country is that transit is underfunded and is having a really hard time meeting that demand," Mr. Darrell said. "Our government should be ready to meet that demand, to embrace it."