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by Angela Cotey
To say it's been a year of ups and downs in the transit industry would be an understatement.
In February, President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) into law. The legislation included $8.4 billion for transit and $1.3 billion for Amtrak.
The influx of funds is giving the transit industry an opportunity to prove what advocates have been saying for years: that for every $1 billion invested in public transportation, 30,000 jobs are created.
The stimulus dollars are being put to quick use; transit agencies had no shortage of "shovel-ready" projects that could be launched within the ARRA timeline. Information on many agencies' recovery act projects — from Bay Area Rapid Transit's Oakland Airport Connector to Chicago Transit Authority's Blue Line reconstruction — are featured in this year's guide.
However, the deep recession that prompted the stimulus legislation also is hitting agencies' in the pocketbook — hard. When asked in Progressive Railroading's annual passenger-rail survey about the biggest issue facing their respective agencies, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority summed it up in just a few words: "The budget and fall in revenues. Nothing else comes close."
Most transit agencies rely on sales tax revenue to fund their operations. As consumers have slashed their spending, agencies have been forced to raise fares, reduce service or both. Budget woes have been further exacerbated in states such as California, where the legislature earlier this year voted to eliminate State Transit Assistance for the next five years. In Florida, the legislature failed to approve a dedicated funding source for the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority.
The lower sales tax revenue is hurting project plans, too. For example, the Regional Transportation District of Denver — which is relying on a sales tax measure to fund its multi-billion-dollar FasTracks program — is struggling to "deliver the program as intended and by the original timeframe" because of lower revenue. The agency is exploring options to address the financial challenges, and might seek an additional sales tax increase to complete the program.
The economy is affecting transit ridership, as well. Nearly 60 percent of all transit trips are taken to commute to and from work, according to APTA, so as unemployment levels have risen, ridership has dipped — or, in the case of some agencies, plummeted (see page 10).
Despite the strain the economy is putting on ridership and revenue, transit officials are optimistic about the year ahead. The stimulus bill has put transit in the spotlight, and with the seemingly transit-supportive Congress and Administration and upcoming surface transportation authorization, the coming year could be a game-changer for the transit industry.
Progressive Railroading emailed surveys to North American transit agencies, seeking general agency data and information on capital projects. Information provided by the responding agencies is listed on the pages that follow.