Transit Agency Study Finds Fares Up and Service Down
The fare for Atlanta’s trains and buses will jump to $2.50 in October, giving the city one of the more expensive transit systems in the country. In Salt Lake City, rides to Temple Square on the popular light-rail system rose a quarter in May to $2.25, and are scheduled to hit $2.50 in two years. Even San Francisco’s iconic cable cars went up a dollar last month, to $6.
The economic downturn is playing havoc with the nation’s public transit systems even as ridership remains near record levels: since 2010, 71 percent of the nation’s large systems have cut service, and half have raised fares, according to a survey released Wednesday by the American Public Transportation Association, a transit advocacy group.
And in many cases, those fare increases and service cuts — made necessary by flat or reduced state and local aid — are being implemented on top of similar moves earlier in the downturn.
“It’s compounding,” Art Guzzetti, the vice president for policy at the transportation association, said of the repeated years of service cuts and fare increases. “I’ve been in the business 32 years. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs along the way. That’s been the nature of the business. But notwithstanding that, this is the worst it’s been in my time.”
Since 2006, transit systems have been carrying passengers on more than 10 billion trips a year, a level not seen since the 1950s, the association has found. But on average, they get around a third of their operating money from fares. Most of the money comes from state and local governments, and with tax collections still struggling to get back to pre-recession levels, 83 percent of the transit agencies surveyed reported receiving flat or reduced state aid.
Many riders — who are often low-wage workers trying to get to their jobs — are getting hit at the farebox, or are being forced to wait longer for more crowded, dirtier trains and buses as transit agencies cut schedules.
In New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority cut service and raised fares last year: the price of a 30-day pass for subways and buses went up $15 to $104, and while most rides cost $2.25, a single-ticket ride went up to $2.50. Now the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is proposing to raise the fares on its PATH trains to $2.75 from $1.75.
Chicago’s commuter rail line, Metra, recently told its riders that it may have to raise fares by up to 20 percent while cutting two to four trains a day from almost every line.
It explained its bind in a note to riders, which said that the downturn has caused the regional transportation sales tax it relies on to “plummet,” and that it was now on track to take in $350 million less than expected through 2013. The rising cost of diesel fuel, meanwhile, will cost the agency $18.3 million more than expected this year. And the agency warned that it would be dangerous to continue taking money out of its capital budget, which is needed to pay for a much-needed backlog of repairs and improvements, in order to keep its trains running.
“Further depleting the capital budget to pay for operations will only make the problem worse and eventually result in impacts on our service and service delays,” it warned.
The survey by the transportation association, based on data collected in March, was released as many transit advocates are worried that Republicans in Congress are planning to cut federal aid for building highways and transit systems. The Federal Transit Administration estimated last year that it would take $77.7 billion just to bring the nation’s aging transit systems into “a state of good repair.” But the survey released this week said that many systems are falling further behind. Three in 10 in the survey said they had put off buying new vehicles. Two in 10 said they had delayed construction projects, and another two in 10 said they delayed maintenance.