Yonah has a post about the predicament facing US transit agencies in bad times. The standard sources of operating subsidy – state and local government support, dedicated taxes – are cyclical, and although federal funds could in principle bridge the gap as Keynesian stimulus, the current mood in Congress and the White House is one of austerity. In addition, House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica’s proposed transportation bill slashes funding to both highways and transit by a third, though Rail Subcommittee Chair Bill Shuster claims large potential savings from streamlining the environmental review process.
In principle, in case the savings don’t materialize, and funding is indeed cut agencies will have to choose between fare hikes and service cuts. In practice, it’s important to distinguish between short-run and long-run budget issues. The short-run problems are fueled entirely by the poor economy. The federal government doesn’t subsidize operations at any case (and the one transit expansion program that’s even mildly good, Los Angeles’s 30/10 plan, would actually move forward under Mica’s plan); despite that, agencies did not have funding shortfalls in 2007.
A related issue is that the US may default on its debt in two weeks, but if it does then everything will suffer rather than just transit, and it’s fantasy to think that fare increases and service cuts would help. In case the US doesn’t default – which is reasonable to plan for, for roughly the same reason US government debt is considered the safest in the world – the short-run problems are not particularly pressing. It depends on the region, of course, but overall, the US economy today is not worse than it was in 2009 or 2010.
Another essentially short-term problem is political: Tea Party politicians make it harder to form a pro-transit consensus (see e.g. here and here), and unexpectedly cut funding to transit projects. In light of the low popularity of such politicians, and the rewriting of federal political power (either completely Democratic or completely Republican) that is expected after the 2012 election, this should also be treated as ephemeral.
In contrast, I encourage everyone to go to the comments to the above-linked post on The Transport Politic, and browse through the proposed solutions. Those include bus stop consolidation, labor force efficiency improvements, consolidation of competing lines across agencies, bus-only lanes to reduce travel time, focusing service on serviceable inner-urban areas, construction cost cuts. In other words, they are all about long-run improvements. I would add two more – namely, the FRA, and stations located in unwalkable areas – but the principle is the same.
The difference is that most long-run problems should be addressed through a prolonged process of new consensus formation. The FRA can be gutted relatively quickly, but everything else requires public consultation and agency reorganization, both of which take time. The rationalizations that could be done quickly and in the guise of a general service cut were already done in 2009; further short-term changes would have to be actual cuts. Long-term changes can’t be done at the drop of a hat.
In addition, anything involving layoffs requires some cooperation from the employees, which requires the agency to find the workers job placement, as JNR/JR did in the 1980s. In Japan, it took almost an entire decade, and that was in an unusually good economy. The US can try to do this a little faster by pursuing rapid growth in transit – diverting the increased labor efficiency into more operating hours rather than reduced operating costs – but this would only mildly soften the blow, unless there were a stellar state of pro-transit consensus allowing for an unusually fast transit growth, which itself would have to be done over the long run. The only other alternative is to engage in the layoffs certain corporations and consultants have been infamous for, which is not guaranteed to produce good results; on the contrary, it would make the employees hate the agency, leading to a dysfunctional corporate culture, in which the line employees with expertise have no reason to share it with management.
It’s critical to avoid confusing short-run and long-run political problems, because their solutions are fundamentally different. In the short run, good transit advocates need to defeat Tea Party legislators and fellow travelers, fight for emergency fixes in the state legislatures such as New York’s transit lockbox, and allow for small fare hikes or service cuts if necessary. Consensus formation has nothing to do with it, and is in fact counterproductive when the other party is explicitly uninterested in consensus.
It’s in the long run that the familiar scourges of this blog become more important. Bottom-up consensus formation, starting from the community level, can be done even now, but it can’t be expected to yield results for the next few years. Once the Tea Party disappears as a political force – most likely 2012 or at the latest 2014 – good transit advocates should look for general good-government approaches, including attempts to revise zoning codes, reform contracting processes to reduce construction costs, and so on; while this can be done early as well, it again should take some time to take effect. Consensus in the long run is critical: it’s important to move away from the state of transportation politics since 2008, in which mode wars have become a partisan issue, and toward a state in which the partisan debates are about whether to improve transit through the application of liberal or conservative ideology. No matter what happens in the next two years, good transit advocates should be planning for the state of transportation funding debates ten years from now to look dramatically different.