Over the past few months, I’ve cared as little about the financial crisis as humanly possible, only casually taking notice as bank after bank failed. I thought it wouldn’t affect me, a college student hoping to go into urban planning. But alas, in an unexpected way, it has. The crisis is now threatening my one obsession: public transportation.
This past summer, when I wasn’t bossing kids around as a camp counselor at home in Mississippi, the land of the SUV, I spent my time marveling as D.C.’s Metro broke ridership records left and right, keeping up with commuter rail extensions across the country, and dreaming of a streetcar to get me around my practically transit-less hometown. While most of the country was worrying about how high gas prices would go, I was in a state of bliss. People were piling onto subways and buses in unheard-of numbers. Every day I would come across an article about another public transportation system seeing its ridership increase by five, ten, and even 20 percent. Even Amtrak, the beleaguered national train agency, had seen tremendous increases on practically all routes. Transit had become the new black, and I was sure that shortly, the government would respond accordingly, infusing our systems with cash to bring us up to the standards set by European countries.
But as they say, all good things must come to an end. As states are going bankrupt (California, anyone?), transit is becoming a casualty. The Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) train, with lines connecting D.C. to Baltimore and West Virginia, will eliminate some services at the beginning of next year, despite the fact that the current number of daily riders surpasses the total seating capacity of the system. Cutting service sends the wrong message about governmental priorities. We should promote less reliance on our congested roads system and encourage people to take the train.
Just last year, the Maryland Transit Administration, the agency that runs MARC, crafted a proposal to increase MARC’s capacity more than threefold in order to accommodate over 100,000 passengers daily. The plan, though perhaps too ambitious and expensive, was promising: the arrival of weekend service, newly built tracks and tunnels, and trains running every few minutes. In just a year’s time, though, these already-lofty plans have come to seem highly improbable.
MARC is not the only system affected by the crisis. Public transportation systems across the country are debating whether they should reduce service, increase fares, or curtail expansion projects just to keep the buses and trains running. The loans that the systems rely on to fund everyday operations and capital projects have vanished, making them desperate for immediate money-saving solutions. And while there is a greater willingness among state governments to fund more mass transit than in the past, transportation agencies are still among the first to see funding cuts during bear markets.
I can only hope that such cuts will be short-lived. California will be voting for funding to construct a high-speed rail system connecting its major cities; Congress recently passed a bill increasing Amtrak funding; New Mexico has plans to extend a line from Albuquerque to Santa Fe by the end of this year.
If there is any time to encourage the use of public transportation, it is now. With ridership at an all time high, the focus should be on keeping these new transit riders out of their cars, not encouraging them to return to their old ways. Plus, an investment in the nation’s crumbling transportation infrastructure will provide jobs in the short run and would encourage development in the long run, alleviating the effects of the economic downturn. With all the concern about the nation’s direction, investing in transit is a sure bet, showing that the government cares about the people’s concerns and putting us back on track to being an innovator in transportation technology.