WHY POPULARITY DOESN'T ALWAYS PAY
(Page 2 of 3)
One response to the worsening financial picture in urban transit has been higher fares. For years, transit operators and the governmental bodies that set their policies have viewed fares as a political hot potato and deliberately kept them low. From 1963 to 1978, for example, the average transit fare in the United States actually declined marginally when adjusted for inflation, according to the American Public Transit Association.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
About 90 percent of the nation's transit vehicles are publicly run. They are usually independent, nonprofit authorities established and owned by cities, counties, or regional governments.
Many of these operators now view this pattern of falling fares as a mistake, and in the past two years rate hikes have been widespread. In the future, transit patrons in most cities can likely expect fares to keep rising in tandem with the rate of inflation, analysts agree.
In Atlanta, for example, a 1971 referendum calling for a 1-cent sales tax to support local transit also promised to keep fares at 15 cents for 7 years. The measure passed and the commitment not to increase fares was kept. But the fare policy simply postponed the inevitable, and last year the fare was raised to 25 cents, then, earlier this year, to 50 cents. Those steep increases caused some ill feeling among some local low-income minority groups, feelings that might have been avoided with steady, smaller fare increases.
"You don't build up any credits in this business and there is no point in avoiding fare increases," says Alan F. Kiepper, general manager of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority.
In Washington, D.C., the policy is simple: On the new rapid rail subway system, fares rise with the consumer price index, and bus fares increase at half that rate.
Looking ahead, transit analysts expect more aggressive fare policies to bring to a head the issue of how best to protect the poor, elderly, and young central-city residents -- a major share of the transit ridership -- from being immobilized by fares they cannot afford.
The US Department of Transportation is studying the feasibility of programs of direct subsidy to Americans with low incomes who depend on public transit. Most analysts who have explored this idea say its major drawbacks are the complexity of administering such a program on a national scale and the problem of verifying and setting standards for those who would qualify for transit aid.
George E. Gray, chief of mass transportation at the California Department of Transportation, says a better approach might be for already established social welfare programs to reimburse transit operators for the fare subsidy they provide users who cannot afford more.
One clear incentive to keep fares rising at least at the same pace as the inflation in operating costs is the public's insistence that service not deteriorate. Many transit operators in all parts of the country have had to hold frequent public hearings on proposed fare increases in the past few years. They are nearly unanimous in their assessment that riders are more concerned about the quality of service than marginal increases in fares.
After months of community hearings in the New York metropolitan area, John Simpson of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which is the regional policymaking agency, concluded, "No one believes service should be cut."
New York City's fiscal problems have magnified what happens to an urban transit system when financial constraints cause service to deteriorate. In the mid-1970s, as inflation rapidly raised the cost of operating the New York bus and rail system, the transit authority's budget was kept essentially flat. Nonessential maintenance and personnel training were reduced sharply.
Today, as a result, on-time performance is down, and public hostility is increasingly evident in growing vandalism and abuse of the subway cars and buses.
"It's a long road back up the hill" to stabilizing the quality of service, says Steven K. Kauffman, general manager of the New York City Transit Authority. And as New York plays catch-up on maintenance, Mr. Kauffman is concerned that this could divert attention and funds from expanding the system to meet the transit needs of the city in the next 20 years. New York already accounts for roughly one-third of the daily US ridership on public transit.