Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Mass Transit Systems Stressed by Increased Use

The increase in gas prices brings with it added stress for mass transit systems. Despite increased ridership, some mass transit systems are struggling to continue serving the public:

Even before the latest run-up in gas prices, transit ridership was at levels not seen in 50 years. Nationally, Americans took 10.3 billion transit trips last year, up 2 percent over the previous year, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

Transit use has grown in [states such as] Maryland as well, with the MARC commuter trains experiencing a 3.5 percent increase in ridership in 2007. Ridership on MTA buses serving Baltimore and its suburbs rose by about 15 percent from July of last year through March. The only form of transit struggling was light rail, which has lost riders since last summer.

Transit advocates say that while they sympathize with commuters forced to pay more at the pump, there might be a silver lining to soaring gas prices: Demand is growing for more and better public transportation.

"People are starting to pay a little bit more attention to mass transit," said Otis Rolley III, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance.

Increased use of mass transit systems does not automatically lead to "break even" status or even profitability:

MARTA officials project a budget deficit of about $43 million for the coming year, and they plan to make job cuts to help cope, according to board chairman Michael Walls.

The MARTA board, which meets today, is expected to vote on its budget for the 2008-09fiscal year at its June meeting.

Unlike the last time it faced a large deficit, earlier in this decade, MARTA does not plan to propose cutbacks in rail or bus service. Instead, Walls said MARTA officials will call for the deficit to be covered by the agency's cash reserves. Currently, MARTA has about $98 million in unrestricted reserves.

But the agency proposes a reduction of 180 staff positions, many of which are unfilled. Some workers already knew their jobs could end June 30, as they were hired to help passengers understand the new Breeze Card system when it was introduced.

MARTA General Manager Beverly Scott said she regrets the cuts amid an economic slowdown. "Notwithstanding [that] the people were standing there with contracts that said June 30, times are hard," she said.


The Chicago Transit Authority is being forced to cut $200 million from its already underfunded budget for new trains and buses, rail station improvements and other key projects because state leaders have failed to come up with a new capital-improvement program, officials said Wednesday.

The CTA board will be asked to approve the cutbacks -- $40 million a year in lost state funding through 2012 -- at its meeting next week.

The cuts mark the first reductions stemming from the failure of the General Assembly and Gov. Rod Blagojevich to agree on capital funding for mass transit statewide.

As well as:

[New York] Gov. [David] Paterson has proposed slashing $60 million in transit funds that the MTA has been banking on as it confronts looming deficits, officials said Friday.

The cuts would widen a $200 million budget deficit that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is projecting for next year.

Paterson's proposal also raises concern that other money the MTA believed it would receive after hashing out its financial plans last year with former Gov. Eliot Spitzer could be in jeopardy.

"A fare increase next year is almost inevitable" if the Paterson proposal survives budget negotiations with the Senate and Assembly, according to Assemblyman Richard Brodsky (D-Westchester).

Noting Paterson's support for Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan in Manhattan, Brodsky fumed: "They are beating the hell out of the middle class."

The effect of mass transit on human happiness has been reduced to a mathematical formula:

"Three years ago, two economists at the University of Zurich, Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, released a study called “Stress That Doesn’t Pay: The Commuting Paradox.” They found that, if your trip is an hour each way, you’d have to make forty per cent more in salary to be as “satisfied” with life as a noncommuter is. (Their data come from Germany, where you’d think speedy Autobahns and punctual trains would bring a little Freude to the proceedings, and their methodology is elaborate and thorough, if impenetrable to the layman, relying on equations like U=α+ß1D+ß2D²+γX+δ1w+δ2w²+δ3log y.) The commuting paradox reflects the notion that many people, who are supposedly rational (according to classical economic theory, at least), commute even though it makes them miserable. They are not, in the final accounting, adequately compensated."

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