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by Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
There isn't much, if anything, working in transit agencies' favor on the funding front these days. State and local budgets are stressed to the max, the two-years-expired surface transportation bill has yet to be reauthorized and the House has proposed slashing transit funding by 30 percent.
As the hits just keep on coming, agencies continue to raise fares, cut service and lay off workers. Compounded with the deep budget cuts most agencies suffered and never fully recovered from during the Great Recession, this next round might be too much for some to bear. Headways for some services could be increased from 20 minutes to an hour. Or, agencies might have to eliminate a portion of their service altogether, as some transit execs have relayed to American Public Transportation Association (APTA) officials.
"There's only so much bad news you can really deal with before you just say, ‘Well, we have an impossible situation,'" says Art Guzzetti, APTA's vice president of policy.
Many agencies referenced the effects of tough times in responses to a question in this year's Passenger Rail At-A-Glance survey about the "hot issues" they're facing. As Caltrain officials wrote, the main challenges are: "Securing a sustainable stream of funding to support rail operations; securing capital funding and financing for projects to maintain the railroad in a state of good repair; providing needed capacity to meet growing demand and increased ridership." (To read other agencies' responses to the question, click here.)
Despite the budget crunches that are on many transit execs' mind, there are a handful of positive signals that the transit industry can anticipate growth in the years to come.
"We need to get through these rough rides, but the long-term trends are all good," says Guzzetti.
The U.S. population is growing by about 3 million people a year, and those people are by and large gravitating to metropolitan areas where road capacity is dwindling. Transit "will have to be part of a balanced system" to handle the growth, says Guzzetti.
Other factors working in transit's favor, according to Guzzetti: a new focus on energy and the environment ("The Department of Energy is treating transit as part of a national energy strategy, and that's a new breakthrough"); economic considerations ("Transit is so important to keeping metro areas efficient, mobile, productive and globally competitive"); and a growing need for affordable transportation options ("Transportation costs in the family budget have grown from 12 percent in the 1960s to about 20 percent now").
Agencies are preparing for future growth as best they can despite their budget constraints, either by implementing modest programs to bring systems and/or rolling stock to a state of good repair, or adding some service. The 29 transit agencies that responded to this year's survey summarized those efforts. That information, as well as general data about the participating agencies, is listed here.