Monday, March 12, 2012

Public Transit Use Up As GOP Seeks to Drop Public Transit Set-Asides

 BART Usher Droid App - Bay Area Rapid Transit

The American Public Transportation Association reported today that there were 10.4 billion rides taken on mass transit systems in the U.S. in 2011, the largest number of rides since 1957.   (Madison had a substantial increase in its ridership in the fourth quarter of 2011, with an increase of 9.5% in Metro use compared to the fourth quarter of 2010.)  The CEO of APTA, Michael Melaniphy, addressed the increase:
“What is exciting is that the uptick in ridership occurred in large, medium and small communities, showing the broad support that public transportation has nationwide.  In fact, the largest rate of growth was in rural communities with populations under 100,000 where public transit use increased by 5.4 percent.”
“Two top reasons for the increased ridership are higher gas prices and in certain areas, a recovering economy with more people returning to work,” said Melaniphy. “Since nearly sixty percent of trips taken on public transportation are for work commutes, it’s not surprising to see ridership increase in areas where the economy has improved.”
The stress by Melaniphy on rural ridership was carefully considered.  Many rural districts in the U.S. trend Republican, and the latest transportation bill put forth by the Republicans and endorsed by Speaker Boehner would end a 30-year practice of setting aside 20 percent of the highway trust fund dollars for public transit.

The New York Times reported on the status of the GOP transportation bill back in February:
. . . since it was presented last month by Representative John L. Mica of Florida, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the bill, a centerpiece of the House Republicans’ jobs agenda, has unraveled like a cheap sweater, with conservatives and liberals pulling equally hard on its threads. The assault illustrated again the difficulties of passing legislation in the divided Congress, even popular bills.
On the left, there has been deep criticism over the addition of oil drilling projects, including a proposal to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a proposal that has divided Congress for years.
On the right, some groups and members were aghast at the $260 billion price tag, and argued that transportation should no longer be a federal priority. “We look forward to evaluating the House Republicans’ new proposal,” said Chris Chocola, the president of the conservative economic advocacy group Club for Growth, “which should simply devolve responsibility for highway spending back to the states.”
One feature that Democrats are trying to put back into the transportation bill is a commuter tax benefit that expired back on December 31.  Last year workers were able to set aside $230 a month before taxes to cover the cost of their transit commutes. Since expiring on Dec. 31, the benefit has been capped at $125 a month. Senator Charles Schumer has attached a provision to the highway bill the Senate is considering this week that would raise the monthly benefit to $240 through 2012 and make it retroactive to Jan. 1. Seems like a fair thing to restore. Workers can still set aside $240 before taxes to pay for some parking expenses. The higher parking benefit encourages employees to use their cars to get to work instead of taking transit.

Another factor in increased public transit use is the wide-spread availability of real time system schedule and fare apps for smart phones that serve to reduce one barrier to transit use, confusion.  

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