When Doomsday No Longer Feels So Dramatic

» 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.

The end result: Most major transit cuts being announced by stressed agencies are more than a warning. Doomsday has come.

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.

9 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • You obviously haven’t caught public opinion in D.C….

  • Russell Warshay

    Yonah, you’re right on the money about needing more stable funding sources. Not only does this reduce the pain when times are bad, but it reduces public mistrust of the various agencies dependent on these revenue sources.

    “most other developed countries don’t immediately turn to inefficient, ineffective tax cuts to solve economic problems”

    That’s a very broad statement. Some tax cuts are more effective and efficient than what government spending can do, and some are less so. It depends on how they are targeted.

  • I could be wrong in my definitions, but I think that, technically, the problematic reduction is in tax receipts (taxes the government gets) rather than tax returns (taxes the government gives back).

  • Allen

    What tax cuts have resulted in reduced transit funding?

    I’m also curious what you meant by ” 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. ”

    Prague is starting down big system-wide cuts right now. The Greek government is facing bankruptcy and announced reducing operating costs by 10% across the board. Montreal’s seen budgets slashed. London just went through yet another round of service cuts. etc, etc, etc. So it’s not that these other systems aren’t seeing service and budget cuts…. so exactly what were you getting at? A new study that showed their cuts are smaller in proportion to tax revenue drops?

  • We sure have experienced this in St. Louis; for several years, our transit agency warned the public about significant service cuts that would follow budget shortfalls, but always managed to find a way at the last second to avoid the cuts. Now when impending cuts are announced, people say “Ho hum, they always cry about money but nothing bad ever happens.”

    In 2008, there was a sales tax referendum to fund transit and many opponents used that exact argument – Metro has cried poor for years, but it’s only a scare tactic. But when the tax was voted down and no one “swooped in” to rescue the transit agency, the entire region felt the effects. It turned a lot of previously anti-transit businesspeople into transit advocates who are pushing for a new tax referendum this spring; but there are already opponents out there making the same argument: “Oh, they always cry poor but never actually make the cuts!” Only this time, they must be either blind or liars, considering the severe transit cutbacks that drew nationwide attention to St. Louis in March 2009.

    What’s the answer, short of magically securing more permanent and stable funding for transit? Agencies have federal obligations to hold hearings whenever service changes are proposed; but if you publicize those hearings, then you’re publicizing the budget woes with your “annual cries of agony.” It’s a vicious cycle.

  • Yonah –

    Transit advocates around the country are getting transit agencies to use the option that Congress gave them to use a small portion of federal stimulus funds to keep trains and buses running. That’s the case in D.C. and that’s what transit advocates are promoting here. https://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2010/02/01/when-doomsday-no-longer-feels-so-dramatic/

    That’s because you are right when you say: “But for the most part, the news [on service] 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.”

    Gene Russianoff
    Straphangers Campaign

  • EngineerScotty

    The question is–can the vicious circle reverse itself when times become better? If the economy recovers, and highway congestion increases, and gasoline goes up–any reason to think that riders won’t return to transit, especially if service cuts are undone?

  • Eric G.

    I think the initial premise here – that riders are no longer outraged by talk of cuts – is not borne out by my experience. My agency is going through public meetings and there are a whole lot of angry folks expressing deep displeasure, both with the fact of cuts in general and with the specific cuts that impact them. We held out for 2 years on reserves and admin cuts, but this recession is obviously longer and deeper than anything any government could have planned for. The basic problem is that all sources (income, sales and property) are down. In normal recessions, property might be your best bet for stability. I agree the social welfare states have more stable sales and income, but it’s a slight difference. The main issue is the same for us as banks. Can we hold adequate reserves? There is tremendous pressure (for us political, for banks investor driven) to spend money when you have it. Saving for a rainy day is unappealing until it’s pouring. Nobody goes to the voters and says we need another 1/10 penny tax to save for a future downturn.
    Making cuts to rail systems presents serious challenges because you’re mostly talking about frequency or span. With buses there are greater opportunities for routing efficiencies where perhaps some bad deviations were added in to the route network for political reasons when cash was available.
    My agency is trying to preserve core frequency and focusing on route changes toward high density corridors and also some span reduction (hopefully temporary). I think many networks have become overly focused on geographic coverage at the expense of serving more productive areas with better frequency. That’s likely driven by ADA requirements and a lack of social services funding to provide for those needs.
    It’s never good to cut without putting the hours back into the system somewhere, but hopefully agencies can look at this strategically to position themselves for rising revenues later. At least ridership is down so cuts are impacting less people than would have been the case 2 years ago. I want that trend to reverse, but realistically, it will take another couple years until employment drives the next round of increases. Allowing the 10% ARRA funds for operations was a critical aid to my agency and many others (thank you Sen. Murray), but unfortunately not enough to sustain anything going forward from here.
    A sad thing I’ve really noticed lately is that in general the public understands very little about our business, our funding or the political pressures that drive decisions. Blogs like this are helping that situation somewhat. Thank you.

  • Sebastian

    Did you forget how thankful transit riders should be to vehicle drivers?

    Part of the loss of funding is because people stopped driving so much for one reason or another whether it was because they lost their jobs or just wanted to cut on expenses. Various user fees/taxes piad by vehicle drivers are eventually diverted into transit. Tolls in Mass and NY are mainly directed into transit. It is not just part of the finances but als the rhetoric and what you will hear general people on the street say.

    Anyway…in your defense, 2008 for both transit in Stockholm and Metro (rail) transit in Copenhagen, numbers did increase. Just looking at Annual reports, as 2009 just ended it is hard to get a picture.

    Also, in your defense, the end of 2009 saw a switch over of contractors to run the Stockholm transit lines (under SL). It is now MTR and I believe it was like Veolia or someone who ran the entire thing before.

    Of course, with a company like MTR running it, perhaps Stockholm could see some promise for increased revenue.

    HK (the home of MTR) being a system that sees annual profits.

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