July 28, 2003
Transit systems hit a rocky road
Lack of funds, riders among major woes here, across nation
By DANA WILKIE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – At the beginning of the month, San Diego commuters began handing over $2.25 each for the privilege of riding the buses and rail lines that serve the county.
For that price – 25 cents more than they had been paying – travelers aren't getting cushier trains and buses, nor speedier trips to the office. Instead, they're helping bail the local transit agency out of a colossal budget hole.
Lost jobs, fewer commuters, falling tax revenues, political pressure to spend more on roads, and lifestyles that keep people in their cars – all have converged in recent years to rock the foundations of mass transit systems, not just in San Diego, but across the state and country.
And it could get worse. Gov. Gray Davis plans to cut $500 million from mass transit programs to help close a $38 billion budget gap. That, coupled with proposals in Congress to spend less on transit and more on roads, bodes ill for transit systems that some critics consider too costly for government and too inconvenient for many commuters.
"A great many people have convinced themselves that if you just build nice, fancy transit systems, people will get out of their cars and use it," said Robert Poole Jr., director of transportation studies at the Reason Public Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Los Angeles. "Sure, some people will use it. But enough to make a difference? There's just no evidence of that at all."
Transit advocates say Congress needs to spend more – not less – to coax commuters out of their cars and into the subways, trains and buses that help reduce air pollution and road congestion.
"This is a state that lives around its cars and highway systems," said Tony Rice, a lobbyist for the California Transit Association, which represents the state's 82 largest transit authorities. "But California is just not capable of sustaining great expansions in its highway systems any longer."
A survey this year by the American Public Transportation Association found that 90 percent of the nation's largest transit districts have raised the cost of tickets or are considering it. One-third have cut services, and about one in five has dropped routes.
In California, examples abound:
As the dot-com demise hit the Silicon Valley, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority lost 30 percent of its commuters and a large chunk of its sales-tax revenues. The transit authority will soon eliminate 17 bus routes and cut service along most light-rail lines.
To keep its budget from hemorrhaging, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority recently approved its first fare increase in eight years for buses and trains.
Facing a $33 million budget hole, San Diego's Metropolitan Transit Development Board this summer, besides beginning to charge more for bus and trolley tickets, drained a rainy-day fund, postponed some transit improvements and began relying on more of the region's half-percent transportation sales tax.
"We're not carrying as many people to employment centers because the jobs are no longer there," said Susan Hafner, director of multimodal operations for the MTDB, which last year had almost 5 million fewer riders on its trolleys and buses than the year before. "And like everything else, the cost of fuel, (transit) commodities and employee expenses have risen."
But census data – which show that the share of commuters using mass transit has remained flat over the past decade – indicate that low ridership may not reflect only the economy.
More than three-quarters of Americans drove to work alone in 2000, up slightly from 1990. In California, 72 percent drove solo. Nationally, only about 5.6 percent of workers used transit – figures that were about the same in 1990. This despite the fact that the nation spent $45 billion on transit in the past decade. Between 1999 and 2002 – the years for which figures were available from the state – California spent $3.4 billion.
Some experts believe transit ridership has stayed flat partly because the car remains far more convenient than buses, trains or trolleys, especially for working parents who may use their morning commute to swing by the day-care center, the cleaners and the market.
When one considers the time it takes to get to a station, wait for a bus or train, make stops, and get from station to office, mass transit on average takes twice as long as driving in a car, said Alan Pisarski, author of "Commuting in America."
"If I show you 50 cities in America with over 1 million people, almost every one would match this pattern," Pisarski said. "I think there is immense time pressure on people, and so they shift to the fastest mode of traveling, which is driving alone in your car."
Martin Wachs, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California Berkeley, said many transit agencies are facing budget problems because fares can't cover the costs of expensive transit projects.
In San Diego, for instance, demand for express buses to Qualcomm Stadium is so low that the transit agency pays a $10 subsidy for each passenger. Transit officials also learned last spring that the extension of the Mission Valley East line of the San Diego Trolley – already $30 million over budget – would cost an additional $35 million to finish.
As Congress creates a new six-year plan for transportation spending, President Bush wants Washington to spend less on transit – only 50 percent of the cost for new projects, rather than the current 80 percent. Under one Senate plan, most of the federal gas tax now set aside for mass transit – 2.8 cents of the 18.4 cents per gallon that motorists pay – would go to highways. Transit would be supported through bond sales.
Such plans would "basically take away any guaranteed funding that exists for transit," said Amy Coggin, spokeswoman for the American Public Transportation Association.
Transit advocates argue that politicians are being misled by census figures, which record only trips to and from work. When all trips are considered, they say, transit ridership increased by 22 percent from 1996 to 2001, and California ridership rose by about 20 percent during the same six years.
Moreover, they argue, transit can be popular when planned near homes, shops and day-care centers. They point to San Diego's plan to steer housing and services such as parks and libraries to urban areas near transit centers and jobs.
"In its infancy, the interstate highway system was not the success that it is today," said Anne-Catherine Vinickas, spokeswoman for the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. "We need to build complete transit systems before they can really be judged as to their effectiveness."