Grim outlook for public transportation

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Can we have a functional, effective transportation system in the U.S.? Can we afford not to? Those were the questions addressed by former Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta and a panel of experts at a full-house 9 AM event at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club Friday. Oh — and how are we going to pay for it all? The program was titled “Funding the Transportation System of the Future.”

“Within the next two decades,” Mineta said in his introductory remarks, “the Census Bureau estimates that the U.S. population will increase by as many as 50 million people. This population growth, combined with a growing backlog of overdue maintenance work on roads and transit systems, creates a need for significantly expanded transportation revenues. However, the current political climate is generally unfavorable to tax increases.”

The ensuing discussion continually returned to two general points: first, that our parents and grandparents funded the transit infrastructures and systems we now enjoy and it is incumbent upon us to do the same for our children and grandchildren; and second, as Mineta and others repeatedly said, that there is no political will anywhere to do the latter. One illustration of the first point was cited by panelist William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association, who observed that “the New York subway system was built 106 years ago for $35 million — and you couldn’t get a feasibility study today for $35 million.”

Given the fact that most cities and counties could spend $35 million on overdue maintenance alone, most panelist comments and audience questions concerned the issue of finding funds at a time when tax increases are not very popular. “Creative funding” solutions appear to be the answer, even if there is currently far more creativity around than funds.

Asha Weinstein Agrawal, Director of the Mineta Transportation Institute‘s National Transportation Finance Center, cited a public opinion poll released yesterday (“one of those phone calls at dinner time…”) that surveyed 1500 people in English and Spanish to test receptiveness to eight variations of a possible gasoline tax. In general, opposition to such a tax is high, she said, but acceptance increases in proportion to benefits which individuals can see: tie the tax to emissions per vehicle and thus reduce greenhouse gases, for example. Agrawal recommended consideration of taxes linked to environmental effects.

Panelist John Horsley, Executive Director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said that because of funding cuts and declining revenues (from road usage fees etc), the U.S. Highway Fund will be insolvent some time between August and October of 2011, with the resultant loss of approximately 1 million jobs. He cited a few bright spots such as several states going ahead with high speed rail projects, “four states have actually raised gas taxes, Kansas has increased the sales tax, and New Hampshire sold itself a bridge” (which will get paid off through tolls.) High occupancy toll lanes were another potential funding source Horsley said could help until “fiscal sanity returns: investing in something good (rather than) borrowing forever.”

The consensus was aptly covered in one summation by California Senator Alan Lowenthal: “It’s a very difficult time for transportation.”

Whereupon this reporter got back on the #1 California Muni bus (catch a back seat, work on your computer for 30 minutes, no parking fee, no traffic hassle) and went home.


  1. Hi Fran. Thank you for being there! A thought and a question. The thought concerns Millar’s comment about $35 million. My handy inflation calculator tells me that’s $825 million in 2010 dollars. One ought to be able to dig a tunnel with that! The question: did anyone mention property owner or developer financing? There’s an emerging argument that they should fund transit, as they once did.

    1. There was actually a little talk about public/private partnerships and other possible shared financing ideas, Jeff, such as is done elsewhere when developers share resultant revenues (Dig the tunnel, develop the real estate, etc.) Most of the focus, though, was on the traditional funding mechanisms… which don’t seem to be promising. It sure wouldn’t hurt to look elsewhere, if we’re going to do anything about the gridlock & pollution. The program was interesting, and will probably be on PBS radio some time soon.

  2. And people are going to bike where? To supermarkets to buy groceries for the whole week or to day cares, where they’d have to drop off couple of kids and then proceed to their office? (Do they have showers in those offices by the way? If yes, more power to them.)
    Let’s face it – US is BUILT ON A CAR DEPENDENCY; American cities are designed in a totally different manner than European cities with that suburban sprawl, except for may be couple of cities on the East Coast. So all this talk about “development of public transportation” in US is nothing but a hot air.

    1. We’re definitely auto-dependent, erasure, but not to the extent now happening. A LOT of my carping time is spent explaining to friends here in San Francisco that they can get from Point A to Point B far cheaper and often almost as fast on Muni bus(es) than in cars that have to be parked in very expensive spots, so I know that much car-dependency is also just habit. Other cities (NYC & DC are two) are far easier for me also on public transit than ever by car. So I just hope we can whittle down the hassle & pollution of too many cars & too much traffic by improved public systems.

    2. I bike to the store. I have seen people taking their kids to school on a bike (mine are grown). Just because YOU can’t do it does not make it impossible.

      Yes, the US suffers from built-in car dependency. Here in Baltimore, we had a great surface rail system that was dismantled piece-by-piece after WW II with the last line going out of service in 1963. Most older cities had the same thing happen.

      People need to come to terms with the fact that energy costs and pollution will FORCE us to give up ‘happy motoring’. There is no replacement for liquid fossil fuels.

      With a portion of the money Obama spent on the financial sector, he could have funded surface rail systems for who-knows-how-many cities, and they would be on their way to cleaner, healthier living.

      Get out of your car. It will be the most liberating thing you ever do.

  3. $35 million 106 years ago is %850 million today. so what? what’s the point? we’re spending $17 billion+ on the Second Avenue Subway? and?

    besides, we need to allow people to walk and bike places. after we do that, then we can spend all of our spare cash on transit.

    1. I think allowing people to walk and bike should be a #1 priority. I don’t bike much, but I walk everywhere possible unless time necessitates buses/subways (and bikes are actually more of a pedestrian threat than cars.) The main purpose of public transportation, it seems to me, should be to encourage people to leave the car at home — and walk or bike.

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