First increase service capacity, then cut service provision

Ben Adler writes:

Recipients of the president's daily press releases have become accustomed to the constant trumpeting of transportation infrastructure projects put in motion by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Vice President Joe Biden (of Amtrak-commuting fame) is constantly popping up at the most mundane locations — a bus depot in suburban Maryland, a highway interchange in Kalamazoo, Michigan — to proclaim the economic and ecological benefits of everything from new buses burning cleaner fuel to the widening of an Interstate. As the administration is so fond of noting, the Recovery Act included an impressive $48 .1 billion for roads and transit.

The problem is that those funds are dedicated almost exclusively for new investments instead of supplementing existing operating funds. Alas, even while states and cities are laying train tracks and buying new buses, they are being forced to cut bus routes and raise subway fares. Mass transit lines are being eliminated and fares raised in cities across the country. And cost-cutting measures mean that transit employees are being laid off from Anchorage, Alaska, to Miami, Florida. Laying off workers from good civil service jobs, and making traveling more expensive and difficult, could hinder the Obama administration's efforts to stimulate the economy.

The Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA) laid off 292 employees. "We're hiring construction workers at the same time that we're laying off bus drivers," says Wiley Norvell, spokesman for Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group for mass transit riders in New York City.

The most harmful effect of this decision necessarily fall upon the urban poor, as one would expect:

"By cutting services you are inhibiting the ability of people who rely on the service to get to their jobs or get to new jobs," says Robert Puentes, a transportation expert at the Brookings Institution. Community organizers in low-income communities in San Francisco say that many of the people they work with would be trapped in poverty by having service cuts in their bus lines prevent them from getting to work or community college. In St. Louis some disabled bus riders are unable to go downtown at all, due to their bus lines having been cut. And while New York City's MTA avoided a "doomsday budget" scenario, fares still rose to $2.25 in June. So, even as mass transit ridership has increased in recent years thanks to unpredictable gas prices, services are being cut and fares are being raised. The worst hit are, of course, poor riders and people with disabilities.

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