Grim outlook for public transportation

Muni-Bus-Market-street-San-Francisco
Image via Wikipedia

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.