Transit is not a relief or solution for high fuel prices

COST Comments: The article below describes a situation which leads to an often held perception that greater public transit ridership is a major antidote to high automobile fuel prices. Experience would indicate otherwise.

While public transit reached an all-time high in ridership during the recent high gasoline price period, the increased passenger miles on public transit was quite small relative to total passenger miles traveled in the US and was only 3-4% of the reduction in automobile passenger miles. Therefore 96-97% of the reduced automobile travel was due to reducing automobile passenger miles by actions including: not taking a trip such as a vacation or by more efficient trip planning such as combining trip needs into fewer trips.

A major reason more people do not switch to transit at a critical juncture such as that created by higher fuel prices is that transit does not go where a vast majority of the travelers wish to go and the time penalty for transit trips is very large: The average commute by transit is twice as long as by automobile.

There are no public transit systems in the country which are financially self-sustaining. Even the New York system is subsidized heavily by the taxpayers. Austin has one of the most subsidized transit agencies in the nation with taxpayers paying about 95% of the cost to highly subsidize 1% of the area’s passenger miles which are traveled on public transit. At the extreme end, taxpayers will subsidize all daily, round-trip riders on the commuter train from Leander to Austin with more than $20,000 per year. And, the financial picture does not improve much because the initial commuter train can only carry about 1000 people per day including almost half of the people standing in every car. To increase capacity, Cap Metro must spend tens of millions on more cars and more track to increase frequency. The net societal benefits are very negative considering congestion, pollution, safety and costs. For example: each rider could be given a free annual taxi pass and taxpayers would experience reduced costs, congestion and pollution while improving safety.

Even the relatively small 3-4% movement of automobile passenger miles to transit during the short period of high fuel prices created a major transit capacity problem in some cities. Most large transit systems, unlike many highway systems, are unable to quickly adjust to variations in demand. In addition, the very forces which motivated some people to switch to transit result in higher costs for transit operations and, in the recent situation, the economic decline resulted in sharp drops in transit revenues due to lower tax collections.

In summary, the higher short term transit ridership exceeded and stressed transit capacity in many cities. The higher transit operating costs and lower transit revenues resulted in higher transit fares and reduced transit service as many routes were cancelled or curtailed due to reduced operating funds. Therefore, those who have no alternative to transit and often have low incomes suffered the greatest impact to their quality of life. And, finally, as gas prices have reduced, people have substantially returned to their automobiles which provide greater convenience and access to society’s opportunities and offerings; providing higher quality of life. The strong relationship between mobility and quality of life has existed for thousands of years. Can one truly imagine this basic human desire: ‘to go where you wish and when you wish’ not being fulfilled in the future. It will certainly not be replaced by unsustainable public transit approaches as we have all just witnessed in every major city in the US.

MARCH 20, 2009, 9:24 P.M. ET

Budget Woes Hit Mass Transit as Tax Revenue Falls

Just as mass-transit ridership has reached a historic high, tax revenues that fund rail and bus service have dropped, leaving transit agencies nationwide with huge budget deficits and the prospect of boosting fares.

In the New York City region, state lawmakers are locked in a dispute over how best to close a $1.2 billion mass-transit budget gap. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs public transportation in greater New York, says that without an emergency cash infusion it will be forced to boost fares 23%, and severely cut service to meet its $11 billion annual budget.

Divided state lawmakers and government officials in Albany have been pitching various plans that might pull in more cash — including bridge tolls and new payroll taxes — but no plan has attracted a majority of legislators and the governor.

Transit agencies in Washington, D.C., Chicago and San Francisco are facing similar situations.

Last year, people took 10.7 billion trips on the country’s 6,500 public-transportation systems, the highest level of ridership in 52 years, according to a report released last year by the American Public Transportation Association, a Washington-based lobbying group.

At the same time, transit agencies were hit with a doubling in diesel-fuel costs last year. And in recent months, many agencies received word that revenue from state property, sales and fuel taxes — which they rely on for their operating budgets — has dropped, forcing officials to consider service cuts and fare boosts.

“It’s really the double whammy of the increasing costs due to the high price of fuel and the revenue sources that are normally available to transit are down because of the tough economic times,” said William Millar, the transportation association’s president.

The federal stimulus package, signed by President Barack Obama, sets aside funds for new projects, such as rail service, but doesn’t cover operating budgets.

For New Yorkers, the MTA is set to impose service changes on March 25 and to increase fares in June for the system’s millions of daily riders. “There’s going to be hell to pay for the majority of subway riders,” said Gene Russianoff, staff attorney with the Straphangers Campaign, a consumer group that is a frequent critic of the MTA and opposes service cuts.

Unlike the systems in smaller metro areas, New York’s transit operations are saddled with some unique problems. The system is more than a century old, and repairs are needed, for instance, on its 90-year-old signaling mechanisms. The MTA has “maxed out” the amount of money it can borrow to pay for repairs and maintenance, a spokesman said. The debt-service costs on its loans are expected to rise to $2 billion next year, he said.

In addition, New York’s system operates 24 hours a day. The MTA’s proposed cuts would reduce some bus services, skip some subway stations at night and kill off a few subway lines. That could inconvenience the nurses, maintenance workers, restaurant employees and others who travel at night.

The MTA says that fares don’t cover half its operating budget, and that it depends on government funds for capital projects. Richard Ravitch, the former MTA commissioner appointed by Gov. David Paterson to develop a transit-financing plan, says politicians have sought for too long to stave off fare increases and haven’t set aside enough money for the system’s long-term needs.

Lawmakers are divided over the plan that Mr. Ravitch has pitched — and that Gov. Paterson supports — calling for higher fares, a $2 toll for drivers crossing the East River and Harlem River bridges into Manhattan, and a multicounty payroll tax. Leaders of the state Assembly and the Senate have pitched their own plans, hoping not to upset taxpayers. But they have been unable to win over a majority of lawmakers.

The Straphangers Campaign has tried to alert New Yorkers to the idea that their local lines may end. This winter, the group staged mock funerals at subway stations for lines slated to be cut, such as the Z train that runs through the borough of Queens. With a bagpiper blowing a dirge inside one subway station, Mr. Russianoff read a tribute using Psalm 23 as a guide: “The MTA is my conductor; the Z train shall not want.”

Write to Suzanne Sataline at

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