American public transit ridership hit a modern record of almost 10.7 billion trips in 2008, the highest ridership since the authorization of the Interstate Highway System in 1956. Public transit reduces congestion by taking cars off the road, saves fuel by efficiently moving people, and is 26 times safer than traveling in a car, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. So with all these benefits to society, why are we now cutting public transit funding?
California’s recent woeful budget eliminated all state funding for public transit for the next few years. While California transit agencies were bracing for a hit, this funding termination was seen as an unlikely “Armageddon scenario” by the California Transit Association, or CTA. Is a 100 percent cut anyone’s idea of a “fair share?”
As a result, transit agencies all over the state are paring back routes, raising fares and taking emergency measures to shore up their budgets. Thousands of employees are out of jobs and forced into a rough economic climate. According to the CTA, the $1.7 billion already cut this year could have generated 80,750 jobs.
For our local Metropolitan Transit District, this means a loss on average of $1 million a year, and this was after the state transit budget had already been reduced by $3 billion in the last two years alone. According to MTD assistant general manager Jerry Estrada, “the actual allocation (to MTD), if no funds were diverted by the state, would be closer to $2.5 million.” This is $2.5 million that isn’t being spent on local jobs and supplies.
Prior funding cuts and increased fuel costs recently caused MTD to cut service and increase fares to $1.75 from $1.25 for cash-paying riders, with 10-ride and monthly passes rising by a smaller amount. These increased fares and service reductions disproportionately hit hardest on those who can least afford it. Service cuts and fare increases could also lead to a drop in ridership. How much more congested will our streets and highways become if some of these transit trips revert back to more cars on the road?
MTD has seen steady ridership growth over the past years, to record levels of 8.1 million trips in 2008. In fact, some routes during peak times unfortunately leave people at the curb. Chances are, once a person is left behind a couple of times he or she will give up the bus and hop back in a car during peak traffic hours. We should be expanding our transit service right now, not cutting back.
As a native son of Santa Barbara, I’ve personally witnessed the increase in congestion on both Highway 101 and our city streets. While 101 will be under construction for the next decade as we widen the freeway, it is often impossible to widen city streets and even if we could, street widening will not solve our problems. Los Angeles is testament to the reality that we can’t build our way out of the situation. Instead, we need to use our current infrastructure in a smarter way than one lonely driver per car. Public transit, as well as carpooling, bicycling, trains, telecommuting and other alternative transportation can help us use existing infrastructure better.
Public transit also helps us save an immense amount of fossil fuels and drastically reduces our greenhouse gas emissions. President Obama has made it clear that reducing our reliance on fossil fuels is now a national priority as a result of issues like foreign oil dependency, climate change, peak oil, and air pollution concerns.
MTD alone saves our region more than a half-million gallons of fuel. Longer distance commuter buses serving our region are even more efficient in bringing employees from Ventura, Santa Maria, Lompoc, and the Santa Ynez Valley. The Clean Air Express, which comes from Santa Maria and Lompoc, eliminates around 200,000 highway trips per year. Each commuter on that bus would have burned eight times more fuel per trip if they had driven alone.
Public transit helps us meet many varied societal goals. In these tough economic times of budget cuts and layoffs, we should not be cutting public transit funding. We should continue funding this vital resource that safely improves our citizens’ mobility, reduces congestion and decreases energy use and greenhouse gases.
What can you do personally? Give your local elected officials a call or send them a note asking their opinion on this important matter. Vote for politicians who understand the importance of public transportation in our society. And try riding the bus more frequently, particularly during off-peak hours. This Sunday is an excellent time to try the bus as, in honor of Earth Day, you can “Ride Free on MTD” on any bus, all day. If the bus doesn’t work for your personal situation, click here to learn more about all of our other local alternative transportation options offered through Traffic Solutions.