Transit Riders Drop 2.9% in June

The nation’s heavily subsidized transit industry continued its descent into oblivion with a 2.9 percent decline in ridership in June 2019, compared with June 2018, according to the Federal Transit Administration’s most recent data. Ridership dropped in 41 of the nation’s 50 largest urban areas, falling even in Seattle, which had previously appeared immune to the decline that is afflicting most of the industry.

Transit is one of the most heavily subsidized industries in the country, receiving more than $50 billion a year from taxpayers. While highways are also subsidized, subsidies to driving average about a penny per passenger mile while subsidies to transit average more than 90 cents per passenger mile. Yet those subsidies haven’t prevented the industry from losing customers in each of the past five years.

Hardest hit in June was Philadelphia’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), whose ridership declined by 22 percent, representing 6.2 million fewer riders in June 2019 than in June 2018. Part of this was due to maintenance-related disruption’s to the city’s trolley system, whose ridership fell 21 percent, but SEPTA’s buses lost 31 percent of their riders and its heavy-rail lines lost 15 percent.

While a 22 percent loss is steep, this is just a continuation of trends in Philadelphia since at least 2016. Moreover, SEPTA ridership is falling despite increases in transit service. Since 2013, SEPTA’s vehicle-revenue miles of service have increased by nearly 6 percent, yet ridership has dropped by nearly 18 percent.

Philadelphia is not the only urban area to suffer double-digit losses in ridership. Transit systems in Cleveland, Kansas City, Louisville, Memphis, San Antonio, and Virginia Beach-Norfolk also lost between 10 and 15 percent of their riders. 

Saving Cities from Bad Federal Policies

Since 1992, federal taxpayers have helped fund construction of urban rail transit lines through a program called New Starts. This program is due to expire in 2020, and today the Highways and Transit Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will hold a hearing on whether or not to renew it.

No doubt most of the witnesses at the hearing will be transit agency officials bragging about how their expensive projects have created jobs and generated economic development. But a close look at the projects built with this fund reveals that New Starts has done more damage to American cities than any other federal program since the urban renewal projects of the 1950s. Here are eight reasons why Congress should not renew the program.

1. New Starts encourages cities to waste money. The more expensive the project, the more money New Starts provides, so transit agencies plan increasingly expensive projects to get “their share” of the money. As a result, average light-rail construction costs have exploded from under $17 million per mile (in today’s dollars) in 1981 to more than $220 million a mile today.

2. New Starts encourages cities to build obsolete technologies. There are good reasons why more than a thousand American cities replaced their rail transit lines with buses between 1920 and 1970: buses cost less and can do more than trains. A train can hold more people than a bus, but for safety reasons a rail line can only move a few trains per hour. A busway can move hundreds of buses and twice as many people per hour as any light-rail line. As one recent report concluded, “there are currently no cases in the US where LRT [light-rail transit] should be favored over BRT [bus-rapid transit].”

3. Rail transit often increases congestion. Light rail, streetcars, and even new commuter-rail lines often add more to congestion by running in streets or at grade crossings than the few cars they take off the road. The traffic analysis for Maryland’s Purple Line, for example, found that it would significantly increase delays experienced by DC-area travelers.

4. New Starts forces transit agencies to go heavily in debt. New Starts pays only half of construction costs, and transit agencies often borrow heavily to pay the other half. This leaves them economically fragile so that, to avoid going into default in an economic downturn, they are forced to make heavy cuts in transit service.

Subscribe to RSS - streetcars