CAUGHT in a triple financial squeeze, many urban mass-transit systems, particularly in the Northeast, face an uncertain future. Ridership is down for a mix of reasons from the recession to perceived quality problems: increased grime, crime, and panhandling. States, strapped for cash, can offer little help. The White House prefers to focus federal transportation support on roads and highways.
Hearings will soon begin here in New York on plans to raise the current $1.15 bus and subway fare to as much as $1.50 - now the rate in Philadelphia, and the highest in the country.
In Washington, D.C., Metro officials are holding hearings this month on a proposal to raise the 85-cent fare to $1. Pittsburgh's fare rose to $1.25 in January, the second hike in one year, to cover a jump in diesel prices. And Boston fares will soon increase for the second time in two years, according to Transportation Secretary Richard L. Taylor.
"What we've been seeing is a spate of fare increases over the past six months or so," says Chip Bishop, a spokesman for the American Public Transit Association. "Many systems have found themselves with no choice."
"The danger of high-priced transit is that it will no longer serve a mass market," warns Columbia University economist Elliott Sclar.
Changes in funding
Mr. Bishop notes urban-transit funding partners changed dramatically during the 1980s. State and local governments now supply almost half the operating costs while the federal share is sharply down from 28 percent in 1981 to 17 percent today. Riders pay about one-third of the cost.
If present trends continue, many transit systems face tough decisions.
The Port Authority of Allegheny County, Pa., which operates Pittsburgh's transit system, will have a $40 million shortfall in its $173 million budget for next year if planned federal and state cuts go through. "It could spell disaster for us," says transit spokeswoman Debra De Courcy.
In New York City, where ridership fell 4 percent last year and targeted state real estate taxes did not bring in the revenue expected, the Metropolitan Transit Authority faces a $215 million shortfall just in this year's budget. "We're looking at the possibility of a fare increase and service reductions - a deadly combination," says MTA spokesman Tito Davila.
The Chicago Transit Authority, which already has a $1.25 fare, could lose 10 percent of the revenue for its $746 million annual budget if planned state and federal cuts go through. "This is really a crossroads time for public transit," says CTA spokesman Bill Utter. "Proposed state and federal budgets are both going in the wrong direction."
Congress must pass a new transportation bill by September, when the current five-year bill expires. Though overall federal funds for public transit would increase slightly over the next five years under the White House plan, operating subsidies for 147 systems in metropolitan areas of 1 million or more people - where half the nation's population lives - would cease. The Bush administration contends that urban transportation is primarily a state and local government responsibility.
Local economies strapped
The American Public Transit Association's Chip Bishop says the White house plan ignores the environmental advantages of mass transit over cars and may eliminate many small transit systems in metropolitan areas. He says state and local governments are even more financially strapped than Washington.
"Our large cities are part of our national economic well-being," says Robert Paaswell, director of the Transportation Research Center at the City College of New York. "Transit systems 201&gt; are national treasures."
"It's our urban areas that compete with one another internationally," agrees Columbia's Mr. Sclar. "We need to pay attention to what will make them liveable, vibrant places.... If the core is allowed to rot, the whole metropolitan area suffers."
When states discuss aid to city transit systems, it is often a spirited debate. That was one reason Chicago officials devised a plan a decade or so ago by which part of a sales tax collected in the six-county area is set aside as a steady source of funds for metropolitan transit operations.
"The idea was to get the subsidy issue out of the legislature [where] the fight was awful," says Joseph Schofer, a professor of civil engineering at the transportation center at Northwestern University. The tax plan takes into account the many who benefit from public transit, including businesses and motorists. Mr. Schofer terms it a potential model for other cities.
States should at least compensate cities for the transit help Washington takes away, says Vukan Vuchic, a professor of transportation engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. He says the White House transportation policy, like its energy proposal, is more or less an "oil-lobby policy."
The irony, Mr. Vuchic says, is that many of the cities in the West, where transit is more limited than in the East, are allocating more money for transit and acting on more imaginative new tax ideas to help transit. "We have such great [transit] assets in cities like Philadelphia, Boston, and New York that with many fewer millions or billions of dollars, we could do much more, but we're not politically as active," he says.
Innovative tax ideas
Innovative ideas can also help reduce transit costs, says Robert Paaswell. Contracting off-hours service in less populated areas can sometimes save, he says. He favors a sharp rise in gasoline taxes as another way to help. Fare programs such as Chicago's which offer a deep discount for bulk purchases can save, too, he says.
Many systems such as those in Chicago and New York hope to save more in the future by moving to automated electronic fare-card systems such as that in Washington, D.C.
Northwestern's Dr. Schofer says surveys show that improving service quality can increase ridership. He also urges older cities to look periodically at their transit systems with an eye to possible trims.
"The fundamental question of how much transit service we have and are willing to pay for is basically a social issue that we're not ready to deal with in this country," insists City College's Dr. Paaswell.
Yet unless that question is answered, Paaswell says, transit managers, facing fixed costs, can do little more than try to keep down the rate at which those costs increase.