By Aaron Westling
Safe, reliable, and frequent public transit matters. It matters for public health, it matters for our environment, and it matters for creating more equitable communities. Yet, transit agencies around the country are facing declining revenues and increasing uncertainty in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Transit agencies have always struggled to fund operations, so the recent drop in farebox revenues is chipping away at an already fragile system. And while agencies still aim to serve those who rely on transit the most, a system stretched too thin with unreliable service and insufficient headways will exacerbate the cycle of poor service leading to reduced ridership and larger funding deficits.
To stay afloat, transit agencies can focus on providing high quality service along busy corridors, helping to raise revenues and support portions of the system that may see less farebox recovery. For example, the Greater Richmond Transit Company has doubled their initial service goals on their BRT line that launched in 2018 by conducting an accessibility analysis to understand areas with the highest demand for service. This resulted in the company designing their system to connect more people, especially blue-collar workers, to more jobs. As David Zipper wrote for Vox, transit agencies can serve their customers best when they focus on providing quality service that increases ridership. That may sound simple, but agencies are often asked, or required, to shift their focus to things beyond providing reliable service. These ancillary initiatives include free transit, which may exacerbate fiscal issues without the desired benefits, and the procurement of electric buses, which can potentially help boost ridership but is a more attractive proposition when the federal government is picking up the tab. That is not to say that more equitable pricing structures and cleaner fleets aren’t worthwhile ventures, it’s that transit agencies are facing a financial reality that requires them to do everything they can to run a reliable system that encourages ridership first and foremost.
“I think there’s an opportunity in front of us right now, the collective us, where we fundamentally look at how public transit is funded in the United States,” Robert Powers, General Manager of Bay Area Rapid Transit said. “I just think now is the time to kind of rethink that.”
While the Biden administration is pursuing a policy that would allow transit agencies to use formula grant funds for operations instead of only for capital projects, agencies are not able to consistently rely on the federal government for operational support. Instead, it may be up to states to find creative ways to both directly finance more transit operations as well as allow agencies to raise more of their own funds. Strategies can include providing more money for operations by reducing farebox recovery goals that are stipulated to receive state funds, allowing for increased or new local tax measures to specifically fund transit, and legalizing Regional Transit Authorities to allow localities to better work together and cooperatively raise funds.
Transit service in the United States is at a crossroads. We know why transit is important and we know the challenges it faces. Now it is time to make the actual investment to keep the trains and buses running on time for years to come.