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Report Stresses Transit Funding Needs Under Biden WH

A new report by the Urban Institute urges an additional $17 billion in annual federal spending for transit nationwide, which could bring many bus systems up to a level currently seen in major cities like Chicago.

by Skip Descant / December 17, 2020
A Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) train. Shutterstock/Kate Scott

A nationwide investment in public transit by the federal government could significantly grow access and ridership, particularly for disadvantaged communities.

New research by the Urban Institute found investing $17 billion annually into public transit serving urban areas of 100,000 residents or more would bring that city’s transit service up to the sort of level found in Chicago.

If that federal investment were scaled back, say to just $2.2 billion annually, this could put transit service levels on par with public transit in a mid-level system like the one in Dallas, Texas. 

“So it’s not a gigantic amount of money when you think about the millions of people who will get access to transit options that they don’t currently have,” said Yonah Freemark, a researcher from the Urban Institute, and author of the study, which is aimed squarely at the incoming Joe Biden administration.  

The research examined what it might cost to improve the quality of transit, “to the levels Joe Biden was talking about in his transition plan,” said Freemark. 

The Biden plan offers few specifics in terms of what to expect from the new administration’s vision for improved public transit. 

However, “it said, ‘high quality transit throughout every city of 100,000 or more people,’” remarked Freemark who took this to mean increasing the vehicle miles traveled of transit buses. Increasing vehicle miles generally comes from increasing the frequency of buses on a route or lengthening a route, both of which translate to an expansion of service. 

Increasing funding for public transit can have an outsize influence on service expansion, according the Urban Institute’s research. 

“The thing that surprised me … in the average urban area, you can get a much higher increase in service provided than there would be an increase in cost,” said Freemark. “If we increased total transit expenditures in the U.S. to Chicago levels, it would increase transit costs by about 35 percent, and that’s about $17 billion.” 

That investment would translate to an increase in service by about 131 percent, said Freemark. 

Federal spending on transit has generally come in the form of funding large capital projects, like new rail lines, and stayed clear of covering operational costs like fuel or labor. Freemark is arguing that federal funds be allowed to pay for operational costs as well.  

Congress should also be thinking about how important it is to think about transit as a nationwide concern, said Freemark. 

One of the harshest realities laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic has been the essential nature of transit, serving as a lifeline, getting workers to jobs in hospitals, grocery stores and other needed areas, as regular ridership and fare revenue plummeted. The CARES Act provided some $25 billion in emergency support for public transit. However, as the months have dragged on, those funds have drawn down and a number of agencies are now staring at crippling revenue losses which will likely lead to worker layoffs and service cuts.  

The aim by transit supporters and researchers is these realities will prompt Congress, and the new Biden administration, to act. 

“And my hope is that the CARES Act serves as a precedent for future investments,” said Freemark. 

This sentiment has been echoed by others who study transportation and transit. 

“Steep transit cuts now risk locking in job losses post-COVID,” said Greg Erhardt, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Kentucky, specializing in transportation and transit issues. “It is a one-two punch, with thousands of drivers losing their jobs and many riders losing the ability to get to theirs, just as things otherwise might recover.” 

Other researchers agree, saying, for now, stop the bleeding. 

“The priority right now is to limit the damage inflicted by the pandemic,” said Simon Berrebi, a researcher at Georgia Tech University, and who has closely followed transit trends, paying particular attention to bus ridership. “Service cuts are not easily reversible. The damage becomes permanent once operators are laid-off, infrastructure falls in disrepair, and transit riders move further into auto-centric suburbs.” 

It took a decade for transit to recover from service cuts imposed at the start of the Great Recession, Berrebi added. 

Furthermore, transit is tied to a region’s economic viability and success, said Erhardt. 

“It provides mobility to those who cannot drive or do not own a car, and otherwise might be excluded from the economy,” he added. 

And improving transit is also tied to improving equity, Freemark argues, adding that many urban areas are often poorly served from a transit perspective and that lack of service ends up limiting opportunity for anyone without a personal vehicle. 

“Unfortunately, the quality of service is really based on the demographics of the urban areas,” said Freemark. “Places that are wealthier and places that are whiter tend to have better public transit service than those that are poorer and less white.

“This is quite concerning. It raises questions as to whether the transit systems in the U.S., as a whole, is actually improving equity, because so many of the regions that are most in need of good transit, actually don’t have it,” Freemark continued. 

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