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A mass transit dilemma: Ridership up, funds down

Public transport systems are reeling from an economic crisis that has dried up tax revenue and blown gaps in state budgets. They are having to raise fares and cut services.

January 27, 2009|Richard Fausset

MIAMI — Demetrius McClain's late-morning commuter train sped smoothly past strip malls and palm trees, heading north to his job in Ft. Lauderdale, about 30 miles away.

McClain, a Web designer, started riding the train in May. The choice between the train and his car was a no-brainer: Gas prices were more than $3.60 a gallon and climbing. His commute on the Tri-Rail -- which connects Miami to Ft. Lauderdale and points north -- cost him $4 per day. Even with lower gas prices, the train still saves him money and the aggravation of fighting traffic on clogged I-95.

But today, the Tri-Rail, like transit systems across the country, is reeling from an economic crisis that has dried up local sales- and property-tax revenue and blown open huge gaps in state budgets.

The regional transit authority that operates the South Florida trains said it expects to lose $18 million in state and local funding in October. That could mean cutting back from 50 trains per day to 20, with most cuts coming on the non-rush-hour schedule McClain depends on.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, January 30, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Transportation cuts: A graphic in Tuesday's Section A, accompanying an article about possible cuts to public transportation in the U.S., said that operating costs rose more than 40% while federal funding remained fairly flat over the past decade. Funding fluctuated but increased 45% between 1998 and 2007.

"If it happens, I'm going to be forced to drive," he said. "I'm not very happy about that -- but it's an adjustment I'll have to make."

The dramatic spike in gas prices that began in 2005 sent Americans flocking to trains, buses and subways, a trend that appears to have held up even as gas prices have dipped. But 2009 could be a year of crisis for the agencies that run them -- a time of more riders but much less money.

Some new funding could come as part of House Democrats' proposed $825-billion stimulus package, which, in its current form, sets aside $9 billion for public transportation. But all of that money would be used for new capital projects, not operating costs. And it is operating budgets -- the money agencies need to run the systems they have now -- that are getting hammered.

If service cuts or increased fares become widespread, transit operators around the country fear they will drive away the new converts they picked up when gas prices were high.

"What's happening in Miami is happening all over the country," said Joe Calabrese, chief executive of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority. "For the layperson, it's very difficult to understand that if ridership is at all-time high levels, how can we be cutting service?"

According to the American Public Transportation Assn., the third quarter of 2008 saw the largest increase in ridership in a quarter-century. Though national ridership numbers are not available for the final quarter of last year -- when gas prices sank most dramatically -- some agencies, like the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which operates the Tri-Rail, continue to report steady or increased ridership.

In Cleveland, ridership increased for the sixth consecutive year in 2008. But like every major public transit system in the country, Cleveland's relies on both fares and tax revenue for funding -- and county sales taxes, a key component of the budget, have plummeted in the stalled economy, Calabrese said.

In the last 13 months, Cleveland riders have seen their fares raised twice and services cut by 8%. Calabrese said another fare increase and 6% service cut may be necessary this year.

The shrinking tax revenues are particularly painful to transit systems that continue to be hammered by high fuel costs: Many of them, Calabrese said, are still locked in to high-price fuel contracts that they thought were good bargains when gas was $4 per gallon.

Similar stories are cropping up around the nation. In Washington, D.C., the Metro transit system, facing a 13% budget shortfall, is considering cutting 900 jobs and enacting the largest service cuts in its 33-year history. Atlanta's MARTA system faces a $57-million deficit. Officials there are considering cutting weekend trains and closing recently renovated train-station bathrooms.

The situation is particularly dire in California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, facing a $41-billion state budget shortfall, has proposed eliminating grants to local transit agencies for the current fiscal year and the next -- a move that would save $559 million, according to H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the state Department of Finance.

In San Francisco, that possibility has transit officials considering cuts to the popular Bay Area Rapid Transit trains -- even though they were ripping out seats last year to cram in record numbers of riders.

In Los Angeles, the transit system has avoided major service cuts, said Marc Littman, a Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman. But the elimination of the state subsidy -- which provides nearly 16% of the MTA operating budget -- along with shrinking sales-tax revenue, means tough choices lay ahead.

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