Keep rapid transit on track

Rapid transit riders in New York City and Boston this week joined the growing ranks of rail commuters across the United States forced to pay higher fares for their daily trips to and from work. While lines formed at token-dispensing booths and most city travelers seemed to take the delays and increased costs in stride, prospects are that rapid transit fares nationwide will continue to jump 10 to 15 cents every two or three years.

So far, rising gasoline prices have led to relatively modest gains -- 5 to 10 percent -- in rapid transit ridership in older cities, although the number of bus riders in medium- sized metropolitant areas (those with under 500,000 residents) has grown faster. As prices at the gas pump get nearer the $2 -per-gallon level, however, transportation experts expect much greater public demands to be placed on rapid transit in the nation's big cities. The Carter administration hopes that urban subways and buses will emerge as a major means for Americans to reduce driving and conserve gas. but improvements in service and greater labor-saving efficiency need to be incorporated into existing systems if Americans are to be lured from their autos into more fuel-efficient transit cars.

Rapid transit faces a number of built-in obstacles. for one, it is less convenient than some other modes of transportation; it does not usually deposit a passenger precisely at his destination but requires a walk at both ends of a line. Moreover, relatively few suburbs even have trains. Adding to the difficulty of overcoming such drawbacks is the fact that the total costs of transit operations and going up much faster than federal, state, and local taxes. Pressures at all levels of government to hold down spending and the reluctance of cities in particular to hike taxes leave metropolitan transit authorities with few options other than to raise fares.

Labor, among the most costly items on any transit budget, is one place where savings could be made. Such outdated work rules as those requiring a full day's pay for an operator or ticket-taker who works only four to five hours during peak traffic periods need to be eliminated. Greater use of part-time employees to fill in during rush hours could also be included in labor contracts worked out with unions in collective bargaining.

Repeated mechanical breakdowns and delays in service are sources of irritation for riders on many older systems. These are largely the result of too few dollars spent on preventive maintanance, lack of expertise among personnel hired to operate and maintain what limited moder, highly complex rapid-transit equipment there is available, and too little significant research and development being carried out in the US in recent years. Greater funding is the primary need.

The Senate took a positive step in voting last week to put $25 billion into mass transit (which includes both buses and rapid tranit) over the next five years, $14 billion of which would to to new construction and major improvements in existing systems and about $9.5 billion to help cover operating expenses. Equally important is the proposed restructuring of the federal assistance program to give greater weight to those cities that actually offer transit service. The current formula allocates funds largely on the basis of population. This has provided transit subsidies to some cities without transit systems. The bill, which is still pending in the House, would speed up the delivery of buses and trains and would encourage the Transportation Secretary to spend more on modernizing commuer rail service.

Such efforts clearly are called for if the public is to be convinced that rapid transit is a reliable and convenient means of transportation for the 1980s -- and an effective energy conservation tool.

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