Public Transportation Funding: Doing More with Less

Alex GibsonBlog

Public transportation in the United States is currently in a state of crisis. A shock to no one, the COVID pandemic – and the associated changes in how we live, work, play, and move about our communities – has a deep impact on public transit. Ridership is down upwards of 75%, meaning fare revenue is down about the same. As mentioned within those headlines of “crisis”, municipalities face extreme budget cuts due to lost tax revenue—cuts which are already hitting public transit.

For the rest of this post, I’d like to answer two questions in one: How did we get here, financially, for public transit?

Where did publicly funded transportation begin?

If you’re interested in a more detailed timeline of public transportation in the US, the Federal Transit Administration has a good one, and we’ll start with their item from 1897, “First publicly-financed public transportation facility”.

The short version: during the Industrial Revolution, cities started growing rapidly and the entire landscape of our economy changed. This accelerated after the 1840s, and as larger American cities such as Philadelphia and New York continued to prosper, the population and density increased, and the need for better transportation systems became apparent. Most of these systems were privately operated, but in 1891 the Mayor of Boston appointed the Rapid Transit Commission to determine how to best serve the ever-growing municipality, and in 1897 the Tremont Street subway tunnel was opened. The trend of private operation continued past the turn of the century, with 1912’s opening of the San Francisco Municipal Railway marking the first publicly owned and operated transit system in the country, an idea that is now ubiquitous.

Fast-forward to the first federal-level funding for public transit: the Urban Mass Transit Act of 1964, in which Congress authorized $375M of public transportation over three years. Public agencies were still reliant on fare revenues for a portion of their operational cost, but the government was now officially supporting these systems en masse. This method of federal funding continues, with 2015’s FAST Act being a more recent example. These investments not only help people thrive and cities grow, but they are financially sound, as public transit systems offer a 4:1 return on economic investment.

How is transportation funded in 2021?

And now we arrive at today: the world of 75% decreased ridership, massive work-from-home numbers, and questions about the general safety of using public transit during a pandemic. The word “crisis” is a fair one. Fortunately, the CARES Act in 2020 provided $25B for transit funding in an attempt to stop the bleeding, but it’s unclear whether this will be enough – as it is far below the original $32B seen as necessary. A changing of the guard within both the executive and legislative branches of government may mean a more positive outlook for the future of public funding, but that won’t change the dire situation faced by cities and municipalities across the country. 2021 is about doing more with less.

Doing more with less.

To help our clients to rise to this challenge, TransLoc’s Planning & Design team developed a process to right-size fleet operations based on current ridership, while maintaining the flexibility to scale up service quickly to accommodate economic recovery. By combining high-frequency fixed route service with on-demand microtransit, our transit customers are able to stay operationally-lean while lowering rider waitand ride times. As ridership grows, additional vehicles can come online to serve the increasing demand. The origin/destination data generated by microtransit vehicles can also inform when and where to reintroduce fixed route service in order to meet the changing needs of riders and put transit assets to best use.

Wondering how you can do more with less this year? Reach out to me at alex.gibson@transloc.com or contact us below to get a leg-up on Planning & Design Services and learn how TransLoc can solve for your challenges and help save resources along the way. We look forward to hearing from you!