As you may have heard; HART and PSTA posted news last week of record ridership during the month of April, which continues to be an amazing trend despite the current state of the economy throughout the Bay Area.
However, I really have to make things clear about the reality of the current transit funding situation, because some people don’t seem to realize that you can’t have expanded transit service without money to fund those services. When I was reading comments on HART and PSTA’s Facebook pages, some people were asking why can’t we get more routes or buses? Again, if there is no funding available, then there is simply no way to get new buses or routes…it’s as simple as that.
Now, you may be asking; why are so many transit districts nationwide so cash-strapped right now? The main reason is because local, state, and federal funding have all decreased in recent years – primarily due to the 2008 financial crisis and the recession that quickly followed. With less money being allocated in government budgets to fund public transit systems, and many federal grants disappearing in recent years, public transit districts have only seen their budgets shrink and shrink, and shrink some more. This has resulted in transit districts cutting back services and hiking bus and rail fares just to be able to maintain bare-bones service.
For example; property taxes currently fund the bulk of transit operations for both HART and PSTA. When the 2008 financial crisis broke out, property tax levels began to substantially drop, forcing HART and PSTA to heavily re-evaluate service and fare levels. As a result, many under-performing routes and services were eliminated, and fares were gradually increased. However, funding levels have continued to decline, leading to a scenario where both HART and PSTA face a major deficit if no new funding avenues are found. According to HART’s 2012 ridership report, property tax (or ad-valorem) funding levels (for HART) during the fiscal year of 2012/2013 was nearly equivalent to what was available in 2005, even though ridership on the HART bus system has skyrocketed. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, this is the exact reason as to why HART (and PSTA) are unable to purchase any new buses without the help of external funding sources (such as federal grants). PSTA has been very fortunate during the past few years to gain a fleet of hybrid-drive buses, but my understanding is that these buses were funded through federal grants. Unfortunately, some of these grants may very well disappear in the coming months due to the ongoing political battles in Washington, DC.
Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) in Hampton/Norfolk, VA is also dealing with a similar debacle. They too do not have additional funds available to purchase additional buses to expand their bus fleet. My understanding is that until recently, HRT was operating buses that they purchased back in 1993! I’m sure that made maintenance a nightmare because they likely had to special order some parts that are no longer widely available, which in-turn increases maintenance costs. Just like your personal vehicle, the older the bus, the more it costs to maintain it. Even today, HRT must still maintain buses that they purchased in 1999 until funding is obtained to replenish the fleet. Because of constrained budgets, both HART and HRT can barely keep pace with the keeping its current fleet levels afloat, and PSTA is not very far behind.
One of the ways that these districts can open up new funding avenues is a dedicated sales tax, which is what Pinellas County is currently proposing to put on the November, 2014 ballot. However, the repercussions of the failed 2010 sales tax vote in neighboring Hillsborough County, and the killing of high speed rail in Florida are still too fresh on many people’s minds to really determine if the Pinellas proposal will be able to pass in 2014 (let alone be put on the ballot). Even though there have been recent polls showing building support for the Pinellas proposal and light rail, these polls are only representative of a portion of Bay Area residents. In reality, opinions on the matter are still very much mixed, and there is always a possibility that anti-tax groups can still derail the 2014 efforts.
With all of this said; public transit in the entire Tampa Bay area will be reaching a pivotal moment in less than two weeks, when HART’s MetroRapid (bus rapid transit) line becomes operational. There is no doubt in my mind that the future of public transit in the Tampa Bay area will be largely dependent on the success of the MetroRapid line. I can strongly predict that everyone is going to be paying close attention to how MetroRapid performs during its first year, and I strongly believe that it will be a driving factor as to whether there is continued support for the Pinellas sales tax plan. In other words, if (for any reason) the MetroRapid system fails to deliver the service that it is meant to bring to Hillsborough County, the repercussions could be out right disastrous! I say this because the entire Tampa Bay region could very well be set back another 50 years when it comes to any form of transit improvements, including any possibility of rail coming to the area.
During the summer months, I will be taking a closer look at how other public transit districts in the United States are dealing with constrained budgets. I will also go through some scenarios that could play out in the Tampa Bay area should MetroRapid be a success, as well as scenarios that could play out if the opposite happens. Again, the start of the MetroRapid line is serving as the pivotal moment in Tampa Bay public transit, and there’s going to be a lot of things that will depend on the success of the new system.