Envisioning a Federal Program to Increase Transit Service - TransitCenter


On March 13, 2020, at the onset of the pandemic, the Federal Transit Administration responded to the emergency by enabling transit agencies to spend federal funds to run buses and trains. It was a break with longstanding policy.


Normally, federal grants are reserved for capital projects like maintaining track, buying vehicles, or building new lines. But faced with plummeting revenues and the imperative to connect essential workers to their jobs, it was obvious: Transit agencies needed that money to run service.


As Holly McCoy, whose family relies on transit to get to work and school in Durham, NC, put it: “Transit is a necessity for people to live––just like food, water, electricity, or clothes.” Tracks, trains, and buses wouldn’t do much good if agencies couldn’t afford to pay people to operate them and riders were left stranded.


It took the clarifying urgency of a severe pandemic to make transit service a national funding priority. In addition to the FTA’s emergency program, three COVID relief bills helped transit agencies keep service running.


But the need to invigorate American transit service predated the pandemic. And after the pandemic recedes, a federal program to support transit service could yield immense dividends.


In most American cities, the fundamental shortcoming of transit is its sheer scarcity. Buses and trains simply don’t come often enough or connect enough places to be a reliable transportation option. More abundant service promises to unlock economic opportunity for people with low incomes, improve mobility for Black and brown residents who rely on transit the most, and reduce carbon emissions. The current federal transportation policy regime, however, has done little to change the scarcity of transit service.


For most transit agencies, federal grants are available for transit maintenance, upgrades, and expansion — not service. Nor do the current formulas to distribute federal transit funding incentivize agencies to provide equitable service, or the kind of frequent, all-day, every-day service that builds ridership.


To be clear, federal support is a critical component of agencies’ capital budgets that, in the hands of a capable steward, keeps transit systems in good working condition and enhances reliability, accessibility, speed, and capacity. But the lack of emphasis on the service itself is a flaw in the federal program.


Many agencies have chased federal matching funds for costly new transit lines only to let their core services stagnate. In cities like Denver and Los Angeles, massive expansion of physical transit infrastructure has not translated to better service for most riders, and ridership was in decline even before COVID struck.


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