Report: Keep Mass On Track

Stranded at the Station

The Impact of the Financial Crisis in Public Transportation

Demand for public transportation is at a historic high for the United States. In 2008, Americans took 10.7 billion trips on public transportation, the highest since 1956 — the year the Interstate Highway System was approved. Since 1995, transit ridership has been growing at nearly triple the rate of the population and almost twice as fast as the number of miles driven. In 2008, transit ridership rose four percent, while the total number of miles driven fell by 3.6 percent.

Communities across the country have tried to respond to this demand by planning for new rail lines, launching commuter bus and train services, and expanding bus routes into areas never before served by transit. Rail and rapid bus lines, in turn, have attracted new homes, businesses and offices. These trends are almost universally regarded as positive for local communities, for metro areas and for the nation as a whole.

The benefits, certainly, are numerous. They accrue to people from all walks of life: Older Americans (and there are more every day) rely on public transit to remain active and engaged, rather than stranded at home. As gas prices rise along with freeway congestion, drivers are switching to public transportation to save money and frustration. Low-income workers and their families depend on transit to reach jobs and daily necessities.

Businesses also benefit, gaining greater access to workers who themselves have more reliable commutes. Fewer commuters clogging the highways can mean more efficient goods movement, as well as cleaner air. Property values in neighborhoods close to quality transit service have held steady or improved, even in this real estate depression, providing a boon to owners and local governments alike. The nation as a whole benefits from reduced reliance on oil imported from volatile parts of the world, with less of our national income sent abroad. And the planet benefits from reduced carbon emissions: More than 30 state climate change action plans call for substantially increased public transportation. The new Administration understands these benefits, too. The President, his Secretary of Transportation and other officials regularly point to the benefits that public transportation produces for the economy, the environment, and community health. In addition, building and operating transit could be a source of rapid job creation in an economy where jobs are desperately needed.

With both the demand and the pay-off so high, now would seem to be the time to build on this success and expand transit options, yet the opposite is happening. State and local budget cuts have put public transit agencies everywhere under tremendous pressure, forcing them to eliminate service, raise fares and lay off workers. While the depth of the funding crisis is the result of the unusually severe economic downturn, the cuts to this essential service underscore a basic truth: The funding base for building and operating public transportation is insufficient and vulnerable.

Financial support from states and localities is important, but they cannot do it on their own. As with all transportation systems in the U.S. – whether highways, airports, or transit -- federal policy and funding determine whether any given mode reaches its potential. Currently, the federal government devotes 82 cents of every transportation dollar to roads and 18 percent to public transportation. Federal policy requires local taxpayers to match each federal dollar for public transportation with a dollar of their own, while requiring only a quarter match for roads. The federal government provides formula funding to localities, but does not give them the flexibility to spend it as needs dictate; rather, it requires them to spend on equipment and construction, even if the pressing need is for money to preserve services in an economic downturn.

Existing federal policy is out of date and out of touch with today’s realities. Even if Congress were to act today to change policy to enable the preservation of existing service in this economy – and it should – the resources needed to meet rising demand are simply not there. It is encouraging, then, that leaders in the U.S. House have put forward ideas to provide greater flexibility, fairness, and funding in the next six-year transportation law. It is our hope that this report, which provides a national snapshot of the pain being felt by transit riders across the country, will help serve as a catalyst for building a system that realizes the myriad benefits outlined above and creates a robust, resilient transportation network that works for all Americans.

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