October 20, 2008
The 2008 APTA Annual Meeting and EXPO in San Diego was a huge success!
Read all about it.
Public Transit Faces a ‘Perfect Storm’ of Challenges
By ROBERT BRADFORD, for Passenger Transport
The process began about three years ago, when U.S. gasoline prices began a steady and punishing ascent. Americans did the math, and more and more of them realized that riding public transportation would be far less expensive than driving a car. This led to unprecedented, record levels of transit ridership.
Transit systems are struggling to find ways to increase capacity. A recent APTA survey found that 85 percent of public transit systems report capacity problems and 91 percent say they are facing limitations in their ability to add service to meet increased ridership.
If capacity alone were the problem, perhaps this challenge would be manageable. But transit systems are experiencing what is called a “perfect storm,” since the rising fuel costs hitting Americans at the pumps also have a profound effect on transit system budgets. In addition, a faltering U.S. economy is having a direct impact on traditional funding sources for transit agencies, from sales tax revenue to support from federal, state, and local governments.
Participants in “The Perfect Storm: Impacts of Fuel, Ridership and a Turbulent Economy,” a two-part session at the 2008 APTA Annual Meeting and EXPO in San Diego, heard from transit system leaders sharing the implications and challenges of surging ridership and strained budgets.
A Dream and a Nightmare
“We face a problem with fuel that is probably unprecedented,” said Art Leahy, chief executive officer of the Orange County Transportation Authority in Orange, CA, who moderated the first part of the two-part session. “Fuel consumption is increasing around the world.”
Celia Kupersmith, general manager of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District in San Francisco, said, “It truly is a perfect storm that we’re facing now. We’re seeing ridership increases that we literally dream about. But this is what we dreamed of in one way and our absolute worst nightmare in another way.”
William Mooney, chief operating officer of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), the second largest public transit agency in the United States, is no stranger to pressure. He knows that his agency must take extraordinary measures to deal with capacity issues, and oversees CTA’s efforts to attack the challenges on a range of fronts.
Mooney explained that CTA is changing its fleet mix to include more 60-foot buses. The agency is removing seats to create more standing room on rail cars during rush hour, and is increasing the number of express buses to improve running time.
Still, he sees no relief in the immediate future: “Ridership throughout the city is up, and we’re going to see a huge surge in rail ridership over where it is today.”
For Kevin Desmond, general manager of King County Metro Transit in Seattle, the perfect storm is defying trends of supply and demand. To deal with budget problems, the agency implemented its first fare increase in seven years.
Traditionally, raising fares has some effect on ridership, but that’s not the case in Seattle, according to Desmond: “The fare increase had no impact on ridership. We are still experiencing substantial increases in crowding.”
King County Metro is taking a comprehensive approach to deal with the budgetary pressures it faces, he said. Like other systems throughout the country, it is considering additional fare increases to cope with capacity issues. It also has gone into the fuel-hedging business in an attempt to stabilize fuel costs for coming years. Desmond said he is making cuts in non-essential capital projects, and he is taking the unprecedented step of spending down his agency’s reserves.
“This [situation] is being viewed as an emergency,” he stressed.
On paper, the surges in ridership should be good news for public transit. The inevitable question of customers and politicians is, “Isn’t this what public transit has been pushing for years?”
Sue Knapp, president of the KFH Group in Bethesda, MD, conducted the survey for APTA to drill down on the challenges facing transit systems. Public transit must convey that customers are indeed “riding on buses that are full, but it’s not covering the cost of fuel,” she said.
Transit authority leaders are taking that message to political leaders and the communities they serve. Many report that constituents are slowly starting to understand the pressures transit systems face.
Paul Ballard, chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Transit Authority in Nashville, reported similar experiences. After he takes the time to discuss the realities of transit funding with public officials, he said, their response, all too often, is, “Nobody ever told me that.”
As pressures on transit systems continue, new partnerships must develop between public transit, customers, and funding agencies, he said.
John Lewis, chief executive officer of the GRTC Transit System in Richmond, VA, noted that he has been telling his system’s story to Rotary Clubs, local media, and county officials since 2005, when the agency had to deal with fuel shortages related to Hurricane Katrina. He said he explains the structural problems facing his system and uses clear language to explain the problems of capacity and rising fuel costs. At the end of the day, Lewis said, “People are beginning to understand the asset that public transit offers to a community.”