NYC Councilmember Michael McMahon, union leaders, and transit and environmental advocates called for federal operating assistance to transit agencies at a July 22 press conference.
Nearly every New York City metro area news outlet has reported that the MTA will propose a fare and toll increase at tomorrow’s board meeting, but it isn’t just the MTA that’s having trouble keeping a balanced budget. NJ Transit’s 2009 budget keeps fares steady but includes unspecified service cuts. Connecticut’s Greater Bridgeport Transit Authority expects to raise fares in October. Across the country, transit agencies are dealing with a paradox: ridership is increasing as Americans adjust to higher fuel costs, but those higher fuel costs are forcing transit agencies to consider service cuts and fare increases.
One bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last month (H.R. 6052) would help struggling transit agencies by providing $1.7 billion in operating aid for fiscal years 2008 and 2009. The aid would cover expenses incurred by agencies that expand service or reduce fares, and would represent the first major federal aid for transit operations in years (only areas with under 50,000 residents are currently eligible for federal operating assistance). With the federal surface transportation programs coming up for reauthorization in 2009, the bill could set a precedent for the federal government’s role in supporting transit.
Though the bill was overwhelmingly passed by the House, it does not have a sponsor in the Senate. Local and state advocates have been working to change this. NYC Councilmember Michael McMahon, the Amalgamated Transit Union, Transport Workers Union Local 100, and transit and environmental advocates held a press conference today calling on New York’s Senate delegation to support the bill. The Empire State Transportation Alliance (of which Tri-State is a member) has also sent letters in support of the bill to NY Sens. Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton.
For many transit agencies, operating costs are the main barrier to increased service. For example, in 2005 Connecticut purchased 25 buses for local transit agencies, but the agencies could not run the buses until 2007 because their operating budgets were too small (See MTR # 553).
By helping public transit agencies expand and improve service, the bill would indirectly act as an economic stimulus by making it easier for Americans to cut down on driving and save money. Earlier this summer, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that the typical family spent $1,500 on gas between February and June — the same amount of money that typical family received as a stimulus check. USPIRG also referenced a study showing that families in areas with good transit access spent about $200 less on transportation per month than families without good transit access.
Few of the other proposed responses to the oil crisis would be as effective as increased transit operating aid. Encouraging offshore drilling and opening the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to drilling would be short-sighted and irresponsible, and would do nothing to affect gas prices for years. Measures to rein in speculators won’t change the fundamental reality that global demand for oil is rising. A “windfall tax” on oil companies didn’t have the level of Senate support needed to overcome a veto or even a filibuster.
Federal aid to transit systems, on the other hand, would offer immediate relief to Americans, reduce demand for oil as more people switch to transit, and (if the 322-98 vote in the House is any indication) could garner broad legislative support.
Image — In foreground, from right: Roger Touissant of Transport Workers Union Local 100, Marcia Bystryn of NY League of Conservation Voters, and NYC Councilmember Michael McMahon. In background, from left: Andy Darrell of Environmental Defense, Gene Russianoff of Straphangers Campaign, Larry Hanley of Amalgamated Transit Union. [Photo by William Alatriste for NY City Council.] Story updated 7/23.