$36,000,000,000 for Corn. $0 for Transit.

2468200488_fb2da5e5c7.jpgThe House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would provide emergency funding to local transit systems facing simultaneous increases in ridership and fuel costs. The legislation is now stalled in the Senate and the Bush Administration has expressed concern that "transit operators risk becoming permanently reliant upon this type of assistance." Meanwhile, when it comes to subsidizing Midwestern farmers, ethanol producers, and the operating costs of America’s fleet of private motor vehicles… well, here’s how Michael Daly of the Daily News summed it up in his column yesterday:

New York City has long sent the feds billions more in taxes each year than we get back in services. To give you an idea of one place the money goes, here is what the
feds gave corn farmers to tend their fields in a two-year period: $36
billion.

Here is what we got to run the subway: 0

The feds have been reasonable when it comes to helping out with big
projects like the new subway and train tunnels that never get done.
But, we get not a penny toward the day-to-day cost of transporting 4
million straphangers.

I interviewed Larry Hanley a couple of weeks ago. He’s the former Staten Island bus driver (famous for getting up in Rudy Giuliani’s grill, among other things) who now serves as a Vice President of the Amalgamated Transit Union. Negotiating contracts across the Northeast, Hanley is seeing smaller transit systems in places like Lancaster, PA and Albany, NY struggling with increasing operating costs at a time when they are also experiencing record increases in ridership.

With New Yorkers facing a pair of fare hikes and a deteriorating transit system, Hanley is arguing that federal funding in mass transit is an investment in local economies, green jobs, the environment and national defense. "We’ve got a Saudi Arabia’s worth of energy savings beneath the streets of New York City," Hanley said. "It’s called the subway."

Photo: Crowded bus in Champaign-Urbana by Benchilada on Flickr.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The Bush Administration has made clear their distaste for funding mass transit operating costs. They say they don’t want local transit systems to become dependent on federal subsidies.”

    The Clinton Administration had a similar distaste, and for a good reason. Funds are limited, and it wanted those funds to go to capital spending — to (gasp!) the future.

    During the early 2000s recession, the feds started allowing that to slip by allowing routine maintenance to count as capital spending, with federal money used for that. The MTA, of course, issues 30-year bonds to pay for painting.

    This is a propaganda campaign, with Paterson and Silver and others up in Albany gearing up to blame the federal government. The same federal government that is the only level of government to put significant cash in to the MTA capital plan since the early 1990s. I’ve heard this federal money whine before. Don’t buy it.

  • We need everything we can get.

    When the OECD originally put together their crash demand reduction program in the 1970s, I believe I remember one of the ideas was to subsidize mass transit in all major cities and expand bus routes to cover a larger area. With Oil over a $100/barrel, this seems like a no-brainer.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Rather than federal operating subsidies, I’d prefer federal MTA capital funds in excess of the $13 billion Anthony Weiner proposed we’d get if the state legislature voted down congestion pricing — the $8 billion the MTA was already counting on, $4.5 billion it expected from CP and the $300 million plus federal grant we lost.

    Get to work Anthony: the deadline is the federal budget that begins in October 2009, and you won’t have Bush to blame when it arrives.

  • What if the 4 million straphangers paid more of the true cost of their commute like Streetsblog advocates automobile drivers do?

    I’ll tell you what — With a May 2008 operating deficit of $1.7 billion (56% of total operating costs) the price of a one-way ride on NYC’s subway would need to rise to at least $4.50.

    Of course, MTA could change their fare structure so that the base fare covers a certain distance and the fare increases for longer distances, as well as having a higher fare during peak hours (effectively congestion pricing for mass transit). DC’s WMATA does this with Metrorail. Paying for distance is surely fair and efficient.

    The rub, however, is that WMATA’s revenues from fares and parking only cover about a third of its operating costs. This would mean an off-peak base fare of $3.85 and a peak maximum fare of $12.85. That’s about 3 gallons of gas at DC prices. Even in a V8 pickup truck, that’s 36 miles in the city.

    At $4.50 each way, how many of the 4 million straphangers in NYC would still be so enthusiastic about riding the subway?

  • Tom

    Fine. Let’s raise subway rates to $4.50. But let’s also *simultaneously* take all funding away from roads. I’m serious — not a penny. Every car to have a GPS unit inside to record what roads it takes, and billed for the cost of using that road.

    We can either fund every mode of transportation equally with regard to its benefits to society, or we can go all-libertarian and fund nothing at all. Either way is fine with me.

  • Marty Barfowitz

    Yes, exactly, Alvin, that is essentially what is currently on the table — a pair of substantial transit fare hikes in rapid succession. Thanks for your informative contribution.

  • Marty —

    My point is the internal inconsistency of the Streetsblog arguments. One day, highway funding is the last bastion of socialism in America, and three days later Naparstek laments that public transportation isn’t getting a bigger suckle from the Federal teat.

    I agree that subsidizing corn ethanol is a waste of taxpayer money — the stuff is at best net energy neutral and it can’t take advantage of the existing pipeline and storage network for distribution because ethanol is corrosive. The funds could go to any number of capital improvements in mass transit across the country, an array of other worthwhile projects, or be used to pay down the national debt just a smidge. I’d personally like to see mass transit reach more places, be closer to more people, and be faster than it is today.

    For Americans to freely choose the subway or the bus over driving their own car, mass transit has to provide an alternative that is at least as good as the car. Sadly, for 120 million Americans it currently does not.

  • Larry Hanley

    The reason roads reach more places than rail or bus is because of the huge long term disparity in government funding. America, ut the “urging” of the massive highway interests has dug this hole by designing a society of sprawl. The first step in getting to sanity is to provide the funding to make it happen.

    Streetsblog is eloquent in explaining this. There is no inconsistency.

  • Anon

    Oh, snap, you busted Streetsblog in a flip-flop! Nice work, Alvin. Fox News can now say with authority that this web site has zero credibility.

    Streetsblog is nothing if not consistent. I read the “Last Bastion of Socialism” headline as satire pointed at the highway lobby lackeys, car-bertarians and anti-planning sprawl-makers who frequently suggest that any public funding for mass transit is “socialism.”

    The chart in that post showed just how ridiculous that argument is.

  • Anon —

    The headline is not the issue. The issue is the substance of the blog entries.

    The chart in the post is deceptive — it is cumulative capital investment over a 50-year time-frame. The graphic masks the significant rise in public funding for mass transit over the last 25 years has risen faster than that for highways. In 1956, mass transit received 8% of combined spending on highways and mass transit. Since 1983, mass transit’s share of the pie has been at least 25%.

    Is this enough? Not nearly.

    At Commuter Outrage we believe in all modes of transportation – cars, buses, subways, light rail, long-distance trains, airplanes, bicycles, walking. We believe that our government should enable all of these modes through infrastructure construction, maintenance, and upgrades, which is why we pay income taxes in the first place. We don’t believe it’s the role of government to socially engineer us through additional taxation and regulation toward attitudes and behaviors it thinks would be best for us (but which we do not prefer). We believe that we as Americans should decide ourselves how to get from point A to point B. In terms of paying for our infrastructure, we believe the government should shift existing tax dollars from pork-barrel projects, rather than levying new taxes.

    Major change in the future of this country will require a holistic review of spending priorities. Congress and whoever is president when this issue is finally taken seriously by Federal, State, and local legislatures will have to make some difficult decisions that will likely be widely unpopular at the time. Public funds are not unlimited. Public funds are scarce resources.

  • Stewart Ransom

    Just a note on the article, Larry Hanley was not just a Bus driver for the MTA, He was a successful ATU Local 726 President for 15 years who,in 1998, was instrumental in reducing the fare from $4.00 to $3.00 which increaseed ridership on the express bussses from 15,000 to 35,000 riders a day.His success at that position caught the attention of the International Union, (Amalgamated Transit Union), who then advanced him to Intl.Vice Pres. for the north east. He has fought for mass transit all of his career and won many battles.

  • We don’t believe it’s the role of government to socially engineer us through additional taxation and regulation toward attitudes and behaviors it thinks would be best for us (but which we do not prefer).

    But apparently you think it was just fine for the government to socially engineer everyone into suburbs through the Interstate Highway System and single-use zoning. God forbid anyone should try to reverse that!

  • michelle the wanderer

    The split between capital versus operating funds is the fundamental issue. Who cares if you can build 100 miles of new subway lines, if you dont have the staff to operate it? Or maintain it well? That results in service issues, delays, problems with cleanliness, even safety issues. Which discourages ridership.

    Here in Atlanta, our transit system has a capital surplus but an operating deficit. Does that make sense? It seems that the capital expenses are more favorable to politicians because the contracts can go to the private companies that contribute to them, but operations are limited to the unionized transit agencies.

  • jason

    michelle,
    The MARTA capital fund is being kept fattened up by state law while operations suffer because the eventual state takeover of MARTA is not far off. The capital fund will be a huge honey pot for suburban and rural lawmakers who will get to use it to pay for commuter buses, bus lanes (which will after two years get converted into general use lanes), and of course the normal good ol’ boy payoffs. Fulton and DeKalb will see little to no benefit from the capital fund that they’ve built up. They’ll be lucky if only half of MARTA’s buses are converted to suburban service after the takeover.

    Starving the operations side helps them convince the public that mass transit is bad and even worse when operated by “those people”.

  • vnm

    We don’t believe it’s the role of government to socially engineer us through additional taxation and regulation toward attitudes and behaviors it thinks would be best for us (but which we do not prefer).

    Alvin, how is building and maintaining the Interstate Highway System not social engineering?

  • PayingItNow

    “The split between capital versus operating funds is the fundamental issue. Who cares if you can build 100 miles of new subway lines, if you dont have the staff to operate it?”

    I disagree. The significance of this split is, IMHO, greatly exaggerated in this thread. Money is money. In the case of NYC, there’s Federal money going to capital improvements of existing infrastructure and there’s capital money for new service. In both categories, this is well below the need, and probably within what the MTA can operate. If we ever reach the point that the Feds are paying to build stuff that we don’t need, while refusing to give us operating assistance, it might be worth carrying out this debate, but we’re a long ways from that happening. Also, from the grantor’s perspective, it’s not unreasonable to limit what the aid can be spent on. It’s very hard to get good accountability and transparency with operating subsidies; much easier for project-based expenditures. The real issue is that there isn’t enough money being pumped into the system. No sense quibbling over which accounts it gets deposited into.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

China Racing Past Competitors to Expand City Subways

|
More than 100 years ago, workers making next to nothing built New York City’s first subways using pick axes, dynamite, and steel wheelbarrows. At a recent trip to New York’s Transit Museum, I had to marvel at the exhibit “Steel, Stone and Backbone,” which details the conditions under which these workers labored and the shockingly […]

White House Unveils Transit Safety Bill to Cautious Praise on the Hill

|
Lawmakers on the House transportation committee today greeted details of the Obama administration’s transit safety plan with approval, but some sounded skeptical notes about the costs of state compliance with new federal rules even as transit agencies cope with billions of dollars in maintenance and repair backlogs. Washington D.C.’s transit safety oversight agency has less […]

Albany’s Transit Sins Come Back to Bite America

|
How many true transit advocates are in this picture? Just how bad are the service cuts and layoffs that transit agencies across the country will soon be forced to enact? Severe enough to weaken the national economy, the New York Times reports — all while Congress pieces together a stimulus plan that does nothing to […]

Maryland on the Verge of a Fix for Transportation Funding Woes

|
Maryland is one of a growing number of U.S. states that’s found itself in a tough spot when it comes to transportation funding. The state blew through its transportation funds when it built a big highway project called the Intercounty Connector. Now, the state has so little money left that unless something changes, it won’t be […]

Despite Problems, Boston’s MBTA Should Continue to Expand

|
2nd inbound orange line track to Boston isn’t even cleared of snow between Oak Grove & Malden! #MBTApocalypse #MBTA pic.twitter.com/hQV9oEbtNq — Cory Thomas (@coryt3) February 11, 2015 Cross posted from the Frontier Group. As you may have heard, we’ve been experiencing a few public transportation problems here in Boston of late. Record-smashing snowfall, coupled with extreme cold […]