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The budget woes of the MBTA seem relatively minor compared to the fiscal problems currently facing many of the country’s largest transit systems.
At a forum on the future of public transportation at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the current or former heads of four of the country’s larger transit systems said they are all facing major operating or capital budget deficits. Chicago’s is $300 million, Philadelphia’s is $110 million, Atlanta’s is $120 million and Washington’s is $189 million. To plug the holes, those cities have instituted service cuts, fare increases or both.
Richard Rodriguez, president of the Chicago Transit Authority, said he has been forced to lay off 1,100 employees, or 10 percent of his workforce, to deal with budget shortfalls.
John Catoe, former general manager of the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority, and John Casey, head of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, also talked about the challenges facing their regions. Former MBTA general manager and MassINC senior fellow Dan Grabauskas moderated the discussion.
"It’s not a unique problem to Boston," said Richard Davey, the MBTA general manager and Massachusetts Department of Transportation Rail and Transit Administrator.
Indeed, Boston is alone among some of the major transit authorities in managing to stave off fare hikes and cuts in service. But the MBTA made its own Faustian bargain to cover $73 million in red ink, primarily by means of a $67.9 million restructuring of its mammoth debt that passes along the current cost of running the system to taxpayers down the road.
The New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Boston, and Chicago transit systems serve more than half of the transit riders in the country. The systems may be falling apart, but demand hasn’t slipped. From 1995 through 2009, public transportation ridership increased by 31 percent, according to the American Public Transit Association.
"The good news is America wants the product we offer," said Roy Kienitz, the US Department of Transportation’s undersecretary for policy. The bad news? "We’re in a terrible position to offer that."
Calls for higher levels of transportation spending have been mysteriously silent on where the money should come from, he adds. What the Obama administration is in a better position to do, said Kienitz, is make grant funding for transit projects, such as the $8 billion going to high speed rail programs, more open and competitive, so that more states and systems can make investments.
Beverly Scott, general manager of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, says local and state governments are going to have to step up with their own funding solutions. In Georgia, that means getting beyond the tug-of-war between metro Atlanta and the rest of the state. "If we don’t want to be an also-ran as a state and as a region, it’s critical that we wind up changing what has been a significant underinvestment in transportation and transportation infrastructure," she told me.
The Georgia legislature recently voted to allow voters to decide in 2012 whether or not to levy a penny sales tax to fund highway and transit projects. Regions of the state that support the tax would get monies to fund their projects; the naysayers would get nothing.
Peter Rogoff, the head of the Federal Transit Administration, says that the goal is funneling money to systems nationwide so buses, trains, and other equipment are kept in good working order and tracks, tunnels, power supply systems and the like are well-maintained. Although there has only been 1 percent growth in total fiscal 2011 transit funding (excluding stimulus dollars) over last year, Rogoff said funding to maintain bus and rail systems is up 8 percent to $2.9 billion. But the increased funding doesn’t mean restoring the systems to pristine conditions. What the federal government is striving for is “adequacy, not optimal performance by any stretch,” Rogoff said.
"When you look at the conditions under which [the general managers] operate and the millions of trips taken every day, they are really miracle workers," Rogoff said.
The forum was sponsored by the MBTA Advisory Board; MassINC, the publisher of <i>CommonWealth</i> magazine; The 128 Business Council, and the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.