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Transit Fare Inflation Hitting Health Insurance-Like Levels?

That's the implication buried in a roundup of dismal news from urban transit agencies that ran in Saturday's Wall Street Journal. After noting the overall ridership decreases tallied by APTA and the specter of punitive service cuts in many cities, the newspaper noted:

3811098633_86047dae97.jpgRiders of Chicago's El train, shown above, were spared fare hikes in 2010 thanks to a last-minute deal. (Photo: ~JudyCrawford via Flickr)

The cost of riding public transit rose at a 17.8% annual rate in thesix months ended in November, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.Overall consumer prices were up at a 4.2% rate in the same period.

That statistic is a bit tricky, since it projects twelve-month inflation rates by looking at six months of data.

But it's still striking -- and scary -- to see transit fare inflation hitting levels that look as bad as price increases for health insurance, which in recent years has grown 8.7% faster than the annual inflation rate, according to the Kaiser Foundation.

Heading into 2010, it's easy to see urban transit agencies falling into a vicious cycle driven by state budget woes verging on the apocalyptic (see California), local resistance to fare increases that disproportionately affect non-car-owning commuters, and federal inaction on much-needed transportation reform.

If there's any upside to the grim picture, it may be that scarce funding is likely to force lawmakers into honestly apportioning scarce resources based on infrastructure projects' true value to local communities -- not the political popularity of ribbon-cutting ceremonies or promises of local job-creation that ultimately fail to materialize.

Such an outcome could well put transit and road projects on a more equal footing. But much like incremental emissions reductions taking shape at the state level, any change will surely take longer than most Americans would like. One thing that might help prod political leaders into action: more of a spotlight on the Journal's transit inflation number.

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