» After years of averted service cuts, there is little public outrage now over actual reductions in operations.
Virtually every major U.S. transit operation is facing major budget problems this year, and riders are feeling the pain in the form of cutbacks in bus and rail service from sea to shining sea. For many Americans, these reductions in transportation operations are the clearest examples of the negative effects on public services resulting from the recession.
Transit agencies have warned of mounting deficits for years; those difficulties have frequently been avoided as lawmakers swoop in at the last minute to fully fund operations. In New York City, a huge deficit at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that would have resulted in the elimination of countless routes was prevented by the state assembly after a major mobilization by the public last year. In Chicago, years of warnings about a coming “doomsday,” when the transit system would be paralyzed by a lack of funds, were ultimately simply warnings as the government was repeatedly able to cobble together the funds to keep vehicles moving.
But this year is different. With state governments themselves facing hobbling deficits due to a large reduction in tax returns, there is no source of additional financing from which support for transit can be culled. And with all sorts of essential public services — from education to health — experiencing broad budget cuts, support for transit is no longer a political priority. The public outcry this time is muted because most people know that there will have to be reductions in services somewhere.
To make matters worse, there’s probably also a large misconception about whether service cuts did or didn’t occur in the past, considering the rhetoric of transit agencies. The cries of agony emanating from agency offices have become an annual event.
Many transit agencies have thought seriously about how to make service reductions as innocuous as possible; New York City’s proposed replacement of the M subway train with an extension of the V could actually produce increasing ridership by opening up direct connections to Midtown from parts of Brooklyn and Queens.
But for the most part, the news is bad. Transit riders can expect to wait longer and pay more for less convenient service. A vicious circle will encourage people to stop taking the bus and instead to drive their cars. Those who have no automobiles will experience a reduction in mobility. The economy in general will suffer, extending the negative effects of the recession.
Even when the economy recovers, there is no guarantee that transportation offerings will improve accordingly. Who says a service cut now won’t become the status quo later?
If there is no obvious way to avoid these reductions now, governments at all levels of the federal system should learn from this recession in order to prepare for the next one. In most other countries, despite economic downturns similar to the one being experienced by the United States, transit services have not been cut back at all. One explanation, of course, is a more stable source of revenues than the sales tax relied upon by most American transit systems to fund system operations and capital programs. Similarly, other countries have stronger social support networks, ensuring that when they experience recessions, they’re less likely to see tax revenues drop to a degree seen in the U.S. Finally, most other developed countries don’t immediately turn to inefficient, ineffective tax cuts to solve economic problems.
In other words, the declining state of American transit operations today is more a reflection of a general lack of political will to maintain public service stability. If it is disappointing to watch agencies reduce services dramatically now, it is downright depressing to note that nothing is being done to ensure that a similar situation won’t occur again.