Where’s My Train? Chronic Disinvestment in Transit Leaves Us All Stuck

December 5, 2022 | 11:42 am
Eddi Aguirre/Unsplash
Kevin X. Shen
Northeast Transportation Policy Analyst/Advocate

If you live in an area with public transit, and have found yourself wondering where things went wrong, you’re not alone.

Maybe you ride every day but have had to navigate line closures and service changes like in Boston or Washington DC. Perhaps you rarely ride or have had a handful of bad experiences with delays or ghost buses that never come. Or perhaps you can’t understand why it is so difficult to get to the airport on a train or bus (we see you, Los Angeles).

Transit is essential – it transports millions of people efficiently each day and is a crucial part of a strategy to reduce the effects of climate change. Just as importantly, it is often the only option that many people have for getting around. Yet, across the country we find ourselves in a state of chronic disinvestment in transit, struggling to see a path forward.

It doesn’t need to be this way.

Through the pandemic, the country realized how critical public transit is for those we deemed “essential workers”. Very quickly in March 2020, Congress passed the CARES Act which provided a one-time $25 billion infusion for public transit operating and capital grants in response to COVID-19. This was enough to keep trains and buses running at the largest transit agencies for under a year, and other agencies for 1-2 years.  In 2021, two more bills provided COVID-19 relief, including approximately $44 billion more for transit. Finally, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) was signed in November 2021. The BIL authorized around $108 billion over five years for public transportation, which was a 79% increase from the last transportation authorization.

Though this federal funding is less than supporters hoped for, we must not squander the historic opportunity for major transit improvements in states and cities, especially in the face of the many crises agencies are currently facing. Federal funding only makes up around 15% of transit budgets, and disinvestment at the state and local levels still persist. Many transit agencies have yet to recover all of their lost ridership and budgetary shortfalls from the pandemic. A decades-long trend of underinvestment in transit has led to a $176 billion national backlog for replacing transit infrastructure already past its useful lives. Add to that, an ongoing operator crisis—we don’t have enough bus drivers—has caused 71% of agencies to cut service or delay service increases.

When transit agencies struggle, the most vulnerable hurt the most

The cracks from this transit disinvestment have been showing.

Last October, The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) pulled 60% of its rail fleet from service during a safety investigation around a Blue Line derailment caused by a wheel issue known since 2017. Meanwhile, dozens of operators were pulled for retraining following a safety review in May. Because of this, trains have been running much less frequently than their usual 10- to 12-minute service, with a growing $185 million budget gap lying ahead.

In Boston, an array of serious safety events prompted an FTA investigation of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). This included a fire on its Orange Line branch which prompted one rider to jump into the Mystic River and swim to shore. These were related to inadequate safety procedures, long delayed maintenance work, and staffing challenges that have been plaguing the MBTA for years. Because of this, the line’s more than 100,000 daily riders recently endured a month-long shutdown with half of the Green Line for a speed round of repairs. While the safety repairs are much needed, this left a third of MBTA’s riders scrambling to find their way to work and other destinations.

What’s unfortunate about this situation is that infrastructure breakdowns and service cuts harm those who need transit the most. Some of those most affected by Boston’s Orange Line shutdown included predominantly Black neighborhoods, including Jamaica Plain, Hyde Park, Roxbury, and Mission Hill, as well as Asian workers and residents in Chinatown. It’s those who live further away from transit access, don’t have cars to drive instead, land have already more strenuous commutes that bear the brunt of disruptions.

Transit service in the US has long been underfunded, and this hits low-income and Black communities hardest. Cities in Canada, Europe, and Asia invest around two-to-four times as much in transit than US cities do. Greater investment translates into more frequent service where missing a bus doesn’t spell disaster for your plans for the day. Transfers between lines, if needed, can be smooth and well planned. I still remember when living in Copenhagen the feeling of security and frankly joy when getting to where I needed to go.  

Because transit funding is so scarce in the US, many transit agencies take low-income and riders of color for granted while concentrating investment to attract wealthier rider based on a misleading transit-industry dogma that divides “choice” and “captive” riders. This leads to excessive investments in bells and whistles like Wi-Fi access or comfortable seats while forgetting about the bread and butter of transit – access, frequency, reliability, and travel time.  

Transit systems are on the brink

In transit funding, there is a big distinction between capital expenses and operating expenses. Much federal funding is limited to capital expenses like buying new vehicles or building new rail lines. Operating expenses include the year-to-year expenses like paying bus operators or regular maintenance, and usually come from state and local sources. Though capital projects like new lines bring excitement and praise for expanding the reach of systems, in the end these projects only serve riders if there is sufficient funding allocated to run those new trains or new buses year in and year out. And in the US, we desperately need to run more train and bus service. To do that we need to fund more transit operations.

This perfect storm of reduced ridership due to the pandemic, strained local and state funding sources, workforce gaps and aging infrastructure means that transit agencies’ bank accounts are looking at a fiscal cliff. For example, WMATA’s $185 million budget gap is projected to grow to $738 million by 2025. Other large agencies face similar challenges, including in New York, the Bay Area, Philadelphia, Chicago. Over the next couple of years, transit agencies will fill the gap as best they can with federal, state, and local sources, but if not may have no choice but to make painful cuts, including reducing service, hurting riders who need it most.

What can we do?

UCS will continue monitoring the transit funding landscape as transit agencies deal with some of these effects. Disinvestment in transit leaves people stuck in place, and holds back the transformative changes needed to lessen transportation’s substantial contribution to climate-altering global warming.

Billions of dollars of federal funding are making their way through state departments of transportation and metropolitan planning organizations (long name, I know), which make decisions on which transportation projects get built or shelved. These decisionmakers need to hear from you that you are paying attention and expect them to invest in transit services that are crucial to help folks live their lives. Connecting with transit advocates in your area is one way you can build power in your community and ensure your voice is heard.  

There is much more work to do to shape a transportation system that is more mobile and just for all, and we hope you join us on that journey.