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.
The interstate highway system is arguably the largest and most impactful project in American history—not just in terms of its cost and the way it connected businesses and cities across the country, but also because of the devastating impact it had on people of color and low-income communities in central cities. All levels of government played a role in pushing interstates through cities. Now it is everyone’s responsibility to confront the long-term consequences. The federal Reconnecting Communities program marks an important turning point in addressing these impacts, but also represents the beginning of a decades-long process to address and correct past damages.
From implementing federally funded projects to keeping highways clear of snow, state DOTs are in need of additional staff capacity and technical expertise to keep the country moving.
Fare-free transit has made headlines recently as more agencies propose bold plans to cut costs for riders. The latest ambitious proposal comes from Washington, D.C., which will eliminate fares on all bus rides in the city starting July 1 while also expanding 24-hour service. This is especially beneficial for low-income riders, although transit advocates often worry that eliminating fare revenues could force agencies to cut service or prevent them from making necessary improvements. These concerns raise important questions. How are these programs being paid for, and what are the prospects that they will be sustainable?
In two states 3,000 miles apart, referendums that would fund transportation efforts, in part, were on the ballot this election cycle. Voters made their choice on Proposition 30 in California and Question 1 in Massachusetts. Both referendums sought to increase the tax rate on each state’s highest earners, but only one was successful.
As the federal government significantly invests in vehicle charging infrastructure, states voice their concerns on effectively implementing a consistent and reliable nationwide network while addressing their local needs. Many states are committed to supporting the transition to electric vehicles, but some are looking for more flexibility with funding requirements to coincide with their existing capacity for an effective system.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is a more than $850 billion historic investment in support of state and local government work to increase access and safety while redressing inequities across the country. However, a recent article by Brookings contributors Ellory Monks and Shalini Vajjhala points out that the existing structure of federal and state grant application processes may inhibit the fair allocation of the funds.
The adoption of electric vehicles is growing in the United States, with all-electric vehicle sales increasing by 85% from 2020 to 2021 and plug-in hybrid sales rising 138%. This is a welcome trend for many, but the increased popularity of EVs combined with better fuel efficiency, and a gas tax that hasn’t been raised in thirty years, is posing a major challenge to policy makers; how to make up for lost gas tax revenue, which currently pays for 29% of state highway funds and 84% at the federal level.
A unique public funding structure called Transportation Reinvestment Zones is a new strategy to increase funds available for public transportation and expanded housing near transit. TRZs work on the principle that improved amenities, access, and convenience will lead to increased property taxes, generating funds for transit and other public services.
Transit agencies across the country are weighing the potential impacts of lowering transit fares or making transit free to passengers, but riders and transit advocates are concerned the fare cuts could translate into worse service. Research suggests there may be better ways to improve service and increase ridership, including leaning on partners to help cover costs.