What’s the “next stop” for public transportation in the United States?
The growth and development of the nation’s public transportation systems may soon reach a screeching halt. If crumbling infrastructure, mounting debt, and painful service cuts aren’t evidence enough, the administrators of some of the nation’s largest transit systems are coming to Boston to say out loud and in unison, “We’re not kidding.”
Arguably, this rare meeting of the nation’s transit minds — scheduled for May 18 — is more about broadly applied solutions than it is about collective commiserating, but there is no doubt that the impetus for a national summit such as this is the “end of the line” financial situations each of these systems is facing. Boston is no exception.
Nearly every public transportation system in the country — in metropolitan, suburban, and rural areas — is grappling with a myriad of management challenges borne of severe financial woes. These are not the issues of their own making, nor can they be solved by internal means. The problems in size, scope, and number are converging as never before to stress and strain the very ability of these systems to deliver customers from Point A to Point B, on time and safely. In addition, the declining road and bridge infrastructure rivals these problems, and it is part of the public consciousness in ways not seen in generations.
An examination of major, well-established transit systems yields common themes within common problems. In city after city, these systems are crushed by debt. (Think of the MBTA on a national scale.) They are starved by budgets in which escalating and intractable fixed costs, such as fuel and health care, outpace earned operating income and subsidies combined. They are pressured by onerous safety and reliability concerns resulting from deferred maintenance of the existing system. And they face continuing calls for expansion without regard for how to pay to build, operate, or maintain the extensions.
Over the past several years, mature public transportation systems from coast to coast have grappled with rising costs and declining revenues. In order to deal with these fiscal challenges, these systems have raised fares, have cut costs where they could, and have been propped up, in some cases, with additional subsidies. The problem is that these efforts have been insufficient, inconsistent, or both. Stopgap strategies in many places have also included a less apparent, but more risky, method of cost-cutting: namely, deferring maintenance. This is a gamble that, at best, costs more in the long run and, at worst, becomes a national tragedy. System-to-system comparisons show a variation of degree, but almost without exception every system has been forced to curtail its maintenance and renewal efforts in meaningful ways — meaningful in that these choices either have or will degrade system reliability and safety. Finally, most systems have cut service and increased costs to passengers through fare increases, all the while being propped up by some additional subsidy, but others are punting by financing deficits and placing the growing burden on the next guy down the road.
The problems facing our nation’s transit systems are universal and well-documented. But are they broadcast widely enough to engender the support and concern of the businesses, universities, hospitals, and entertainment industry leaders that take for granted transit’s role in their continued operation? If forging creative solutions to common problems is the Boston summit’s first agenda item, then rallying a “call to action” is the takeaway.
Boston, for instance, along with New York and Washington, DC, rely upon public transportation to move more than 50 percent of its workforce daily. Some 60 percent of the employees within the Financial District use the T to get to work every day. What happens to the Financial District if the T’s continued financial problems lead to predictable service interruptions? The symptoms of the stress on these systems are insidious and sporadic — a service stoppage here, a line closing there — but their cumulative affect could bring us to our knees. In Boston alone, how would the thousands of students at our colleges and universities attend school? How would doctors, nurses, and patients already struggling to squeeze into congested urban roads give and get medical care? At the very least, how do we see the Sox, cheer on the Bruins and Celtics, and head to Foxboro without our transit fan pods?
The real question here is: Are we, as a country, going to recognize mass transit as an essential component of our mobility menu? Or are we going to allow the continued acceleration of what has already begun in many metropolitan areas: the slow shuttering of our public transportation systems, bus route by bus route?
The organizers of the National Transit Summit in May hope the answer to these questions will be Yes and No, respectively — and not just chorused by the usual, and appreciated, suspects who have worked for years to support transit. We hope that the business leaders, environmentalists, and sports, medical, and academic communities boldly add their voices to the call for action — and their creative thinking to national problems that most definitely demand out-of-the-box strategies.
Dan Grabauskas, a former General Manager of the MBTA, is a Senior Policy Fellow at MassINC.