TOPICS > Economy

Growing Ridership Strains Overburdened Transit Agencies

March 9, 2009 at 6:25 PM EST
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Public transit ridership is at a 50-year high, but the economic downturn is putting new pressure on already overburdened transit agencies. Special correspondent Rick Karr reports as part of the "Blueprint America" series on infrastructure, produced in collaboration with WNET New York.
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GWEN IFILL: New figures out today show Americans relied on public transit in greater numbers last year. The American Public Transportation Association reports that, as gas prices dropped, more than 10 billion trips were taken by bus and rail, the highest level in more than 50 years.

But as demand rises, public agencies are feeling the budget pinch. We have a report from “Blueprint America,” our series on infrastructure produced in collaboration with WNET-New York. Special correspondent Rick Karr has the story.

RICK KARR: John Hillman spends a lot of time commuting.

JOHN HILLMAN, San Francisco Bay Area commuter: In other words, I spend about 60 hours a month commuting to and from work. I’m part of a trend. And this is why investments in public transit are important to people like me.

RICK KARR: Every weekday morning, he gets up at the crack of dawn and leaves his condominium in the Bay Area suburbs. He takes a bus to a train to his office at the University of California, San Francisco.

JOHN HILLMAN: I save about $100 a month taking transit compared to all of the costs involved in — if I was to take a car by myself, in terms of bridge tolls, gas, and everything else. And, also, I find it less stressful.

My wife and I got rid of one of our automobiles about 18 months ago. We wanted to do it as an experiment. And I think it’s going to continue indefinitely, as long as there’s a transit system still in place.

Bus system slashes services

RICK KARR: But in mid-February, the first link in Hillman's transit system started to come undone.

CHARLEY ANDERSON, WestCAT: We may be facing a more serious crisis than was assumed when the F&A Committee made these recommendations, so...

RICK KARR: WestCAT, the suburban bus system that carries Hillman from his home to the train station, was facing a $2 million budget gap. General manager Charley Anderson told the board that the only way out was to slash service.

CHARLEY ANDERSON: The additional cuts are the serious ones that actually do change the nature of our system.

RICK KARR: Minutes later, for the second time in a year, the board voted to cut back.

DEBBIE LONG, committee member: Motion second. All those in favor, say aye.

COMMITTEE MEMBER: Aye.

COMMITTEE MEMBER: Aye.

COMMITTEE MEMBER: Aye.

DEBBIE LONG. Aye. Seeing none opposed, it passes. I hate to say thank you, because it doesn't quite seem appropriate.

RICK KARR: WestCAT could have chosen to raise fares instead, but the agency had already done that recently. And commuter John Hillman says it wouldn't take much more of a hike to convince him to stop using public transit.

JOHN HILLMAN: You know, if it were to go up to, say, $3 or $4 a trip, then it just really isn't worthwhile anymore.

RICK KARR: Cut service, raise fares, or both? It's a dilemma facing more than 60 transit systems across the country as they struggle to deal with rising budget deficits.

Washington, D.C.'s, system is facing a shortfall of nearly $30 million. In New York, it's more than $1 billion. And in the Bay Area, the total is around $200 million.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom says the transit troubles couldn't have come at a worst time.

GAVIN NEWSOM, mayor of San Francisco: Don't talk to us about job creation. Don't talk to us about economic rebound if you're going to cut public transit. You're simply going to shut off the nozzle that gets people to and from work.

Ridership increases across country

RICK KARR: The irony is that mass transit systems nationwide, including San Francisco's Muni, are serving more riders than they have in decades.

Sounds like good news, but not necessarily. Here's the problem: The $1.50 that I just dropped into the turnstile isn't nearly enough to cover the cost of the trip I'm about to go on. Between labor, electricity, and maintenance, it actually costs Muni more than $6 per trip, which means the agency has to come up with more than $4.50 in subsidies.

The new federal stimulus package doesn't offer much relief. Most of that money will pay for new facilities and equipment, which won't do much to help transit agencies operate the buses and trains they already have.

GAVIN NEWSOM: The biggest concern for all these agencies is operating budgets. The whole idea is to subsidize that economic development, which is absolutely critical to have a public transit feed that economic development in terms of getting people to their jobs. And you want to do it without charging $10 per person to get on a bus.

RICK KARR: Transit subsidies come from a combination of local, state, and federal sources. They were more or less stagnant even before the recession hit. That means transit agencies haven't had the money they need to run the systems they already have.

San Francisco Muni General Manager Nat Ford says this light-rail maintenance shop is a good example.

NAT FORD, general manager, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency: It opened up in September of 2008, and it is literally going to be the backbone for the future of this transit system here.

RICK KARR: You say future tense, "will be." Is it not fully operational right now?

NAT FORD: Well, it's not fully operational at this point. We had to freeze 465 positions. Of that, 60 positions were directly related to this facility -- maintenance personnel, cleaning personnel -- so we're, unfortunately, unable to open up the facility to its full potential at this time.

RICK KARR: Ford's agency is looking at a deficit that's about one-sixth of its total budget, and things will only get worse as suburban systems like WestCAT cut their service.

NAT FORD: I would say every transit system in the Bay Area touches Muni in some shape, form or fashion. And a great deal of our ridership is transfers from those systems. So we're very concerned about them, also, and the impact that this economic downturn is having on them.

State lawmakers hands' tied

RICK KARR: Lawmakers at the state capital in Sacramento say there's nothing they can do to help.

CALIFORNIA LEGISLATOR: California is on the edge of a financial cliff.

RICK KARR: When the state legislature finally passed a budget in mid-February after marathon negotiations, it cut transit subsidies from about $600 million to zero.

MARK DESAULNIER, state senator, D-Calif.: I won't sugarcoat it. We are going to be trying to put Band-Aids on a very expensive system that actually has more demands and more needs than it ever has, just to get through the next 18 months.

RICK KARR: It's going to be bad?

MARK DESAULNIER: It will be bad.

RICK KARR: Mark DeSaulnier is a state senator who represents the suburbs served by WestCAT buses. He says service cuts will prompt transit riders like John Hillman to stop taking buses and trains and get back into their cars and onto the area's most crowded highway.

MARK DESAULNIER: You take that one connection on WestCAT away, and he not only doesn't get on WestCAT, he doesn't get on Muni. That whole continuum goes away, and he's back in that car fighting for a parking space in one of the most congested metropolitan areas in the United States.

Transit cuts worry riders

RICK KARR: DeSaulnier says transit cuts will be hardest on people who can't afford cars, commuters like Juan Medina. He's a former construction worker who's taking evening classes at the City College of San Francisco. He's studying to be an emergency medical technician.

For now, when he leaves campus, he rides a train, then boards a WestCAT bus for the rest of the trip. But one of the cuts that WestCAT proposed was to eliminate buses after 9 p.m.

You're going to end up being stranded 10, 15 miles away from your house.

JUAN MEDINA, San Francisco Bay Area commuter: That's right.

RICK KARR: What are your options, then?

JUAN MEDINA: My options would be either a cab, cab ride. And aside from that, maybe a bicycle, you know? That's if it's not raising, you know, so it's pretty limited, you know, for a person that doesn't drive.

How are you doing today, ma'am?

RICK KARR: Medina was so worried about the proposed cuts that he volunteered to try to get other commuters to speak out against them.

JUAN MEDINA: There's a lot of people that their schedules aren't, you know, a 9:00 to 5:00. You know, they get off work late or they take night classes or what have you. And, you know, we're still as much a vital part of the workforce.

RICK KARR: Service cuts can start a downward spiral for transit systems. As buses and trains run less frequently, fewer commuters see the point in waiting around for them, which means less money in the fare box, which means bigger budget gaps.

Commuter John Hillman says he'll think twice about using public transit if WestCAT has to cut the frequency of its service any further.

JOHN HILLMAN: Now it's not too bad. If I miss a connection, I only have to wait another 10 or 15 minutes for the next bus or the next BART train to come. But if they were to go to 40 minutes, that would not be good enough. That would make me go out and buy a car.

RICK KARR: Congress will have a chance to keep John Hillman and millions of Americans like him commuting by public transit when it takes up a major transportation funding bill later this year.

GWEN IFILL: Rick Karr's next report looks at how the financial meltdown has affected public transit.