Electric buses in the Burlington Link-Transit fleet. Photo from BYD.

Can Federal Transit Operations Funding Foster Healthy, Thriving, Sustainable Communities? Yes, Here’s How.

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Today, Representative Hank Johnson introduced federal transit operations funding legislation that could vastly improve transit across the country. UCS has been watching and supported a similar bill sponsored by Rep. Johnson in the last Congress.

High-quality transit is freeing. It connects people to the places, communities, and resources we all need to thrive. It gives folks more options to driving a car. It is crucial for the climate, promotes thriving economies, can help address the long history of fossil-fuel backed politicians and corporations leaving Black and brown folks stuck in place.

Of course, it varies between cities and between cities and less populated areas. Cities like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and Washington, D.C., have huge metro systems that connect with bus networks and serve millions of people every day. In small towns and rural areas, people move differently, and transit is deployed in diverse ways to fit diverse needs, such as in the small town of Poplar Bluff, MO, where the major bus route runs every half hour to provide critical access to jobs and services and can deviate a short distance away from the main route upon request.

Troublingly, many transit systems across the country face dire financial situations, thanks to the US’ long history of disinvestment in any alternatives to the car.

For decades, federal, state, and local decisionmakers have been pouring trillions of dollars into highway expansions and sprawling development that in the end leaves us all stuck. With looming fiscal cliffs caused by a sharp drop in pandemic relief funding and a  downward cycle that makes it hard to keep up revenues with inflation, some state and local transit agencies such as Washington, D.C. have been searching for funding and solutions to be able to prevent service cuts.

Federal operations funding could help get us beyond this situation, towards a future with abundant, high-quality transit.

Great transit service requires federal operating funds

Decades of research studies have shown how transit is crucial for access to healthcareability to get and keep a jobpreventing social isolation in older adults, and economic development for our communities. Those studies have shown that those benefits, if done with proper safeguards protecting against displacement, can be particularly impactful for people of color who don’t own a car. Even if you don’t take the bus or train yourself, transit is essential for building the communities you are a part of. Even further, it is an essential strategy for a more sustainable transportation future.

While it is exciting to see new train lines or new buses come online, over 70% of transit agency expenses are for operations—the everyday expenses to pay bus and train operators and maintain the system. Hate the feeling of just barely missing the bus or train? This pot of funding could help with how frequently the bus comes, the level of service on weekends or outside the 9-5 peak (when folks still need to get around), and how easy it is to use your suburban or rural dial-a-ride service.

The federal government has long provided significant support for transit in this country, though mostly limited to capital investments. The Stronger Communities through Better Transit Act introduced today in the House would create a multi-year source of funding for transit operations coupled with requirements to ensure improvements in service, especially for areas of persistent poverty and underserved communities. The bill authorizes $20 billion each year ($80 billion total), an amount long recommended by transit advocates across the country. This level of funding would help increase transit service across the country on average by 38%, which would help create thriving communities and a better future for our families.

Federal funding supports transit agencies across the country

This bill comes at a time when many transit systems are struggling to balance their books amid a fiscal cliff. This comes at the heels of major inflation, though, many states and localities across the country are coming up with solutions, such as in PhiladelphiaCaliforniaNew YorkMinnesota, and Chicago. The Stronger Communities through Better Transit Act would help transit systems (literally) go much further, by running more frequent service, operating more service early morning or late at night, increasing reliability, and extending routes to reach more people.

With ridership constantly increasing since the pandemic, transit is clearly meeting many people’s needs. While there was a large decrease in ridership around March 2020, especially in the largest cities across the country, most of the nation has been on an upward trajectory since then, with many agencies improving service to reflect new changes in demand. Cities such as Washington, D.C.; Boston; Philadelphia; and Madison, WI have or are in the process of redesigning their bus networks and have seen substantial ridership increases as a result.

Before the pandemic, federal funding made up around 18% of total transit funding in the US. Of course, this varies significantly among the 2,200 public transit systems and over 4,500 nonprofit transit systems across the country, and agencies in smaller urban areas, rural areas, and tribal communities were increasingly relying on federal funding. In addition, since the 1990s, rural and tribal areas have been able to use federal funding for both capital and operating costs. This is all to say that the federal government significantly supports transit, especially in smaller and more rural areas.

Rural and tribal communities rely heavily on federal transit funding. Source: National Transit Database, TS1.1 Total Funding Time Series

Everybody benefits from federal transit operations

We ran the numbers, and you can see in this spreadsheet how much funding your area would get with funding at the level authorized in this transit operations bill, along with what that would mean for transit service in your area or your state. These amounts would transform transit systems across the country and could bring nearly 100 million hours of transit service across the country.

Take Massachusetts, for example. The state could receive over $815 million, roughly $117 per person in the state. For the Boston metro area, 2022 projections have shown an upcoming over $400 million fiscal cliff. This bill could not only help bridge this gap but also support a low-income fare program, or fare-free bus routes, or an increase in the amount of buses or trains coming every 15 minutes or better.

We need more buses and trains

Our country’s expectations for transit have been ground down over the years. Many have us have not thought about what it would be like to live in a community where the bus comes by your home every 10 minutes and can take you around your thriving neighborhood, where the train is a fast and reliable way to go grab groceries or a doctor’s appointment, and where not being able to drive a car doesn’t leave you disconnected and isolated.

Federal transit operations funding will help us get to that future.

Tell your legislators to co-sponsor the bill and mention how the billions of dollars it could help make available would help your community thrive. The Stronger Communities through Better Transit Act is a crucial step in creating a future with a cleaner transportation system where we all have more options to get around.

Courtesy of Union of Concerned Scientists, The Equation. By Kevin X. Shen, Northeast Transportation Policy Analyst/Advocate


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