Share This

Political Physics: Is It Time To Raise Taxes On Gas?


a blogumn by Monique King-Viehland

All around the country – from California to New Jersey to North Carolina to Pennsylvania – public transportation is coming under attack.  As states seek to find ways to fill looming budget gaps, riders of public transportation are becoming victims.

Facing difficult choices as they attempt to close their budget shortfalls, Governors across the country are reducing the subsidy the state provides to their respective transit agencies.  According to American Public Transportation Association President William Millar, “Public transportation is experiencing a funding crisis and it is negatively impacting the millions of riders who depend on public transportation every day…as many public transportation systems are facing large budget shortfalls due to declining state and local revenues.”

According to a survey done by the American Public Transportation Association, “the severity of the funding situation is evident with seven out of ten public transit systems (69 percent) projecting budget shortfalls in their next fiscal year. According to the report, public transit systems have taken significant personnel actions to reduce spending. A total of 68 percent of public transportation systems have eliminated positions or are considering doing so in the future. Nearly half (47 percent) of public transit systems have laid off employees or are considering layoffs in the future.”

With more than 80% of public transit systems facing flat or decreased funding from local, regional and state sources, nine out of 10 transit systems (89%) were forced to raise fares or cut service.

In New Jersey, Governor Christie cut the funding for NJ Transit by more than $100 million forcing the agenda to consider increasing fares by nearly 25%.  And in San Francisco, the San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transportation District raised fares by 6% in July, but is now considering another increase to close a $14 million budget shortfall, according to the San Francisco Examiner.

And increases in fares are only the beginning.  Transit agencies are also reducing service frequency, canceling rush hour service, downsizing fleets and eliminating routes all together.  In New Jersey, in addition to raising fares NJ Transit is proposing reducing the fleet by 32 trains and 33 buses and reduced the frequency on more than 50 routes.

At the end of the day, the cuts may go a long way to restoring fiscal solvency for public transportation agencies but the adverse impact on the poor and working class cannot be ignored.

In a 2007 report, the American Public Transportation Association noted that the majority of public transportation riders were poor or the working class with 20.1 earning less than $15,000 per year and the median household income of public transit users being $39,000.  To put that in perspective, according to the Courier Post, a single adult rider with a monthly train pass traveling to and from Woodbridge, NJ to New York Penn Station will have to pay an additional $684 a year or $57 a month. For many New Jerseyans, that’s more than half a week’s pay that can no longer help pay the rent, groceries, utilities, etc.  The Second Age.Com notes that “public transportation is usually an inelastic good for the poor, and increasing fares will only create greater economic burdens for them.”  And William Millar adds, “Nearly 60 percent of all the trips taken on public transportation are taken to commute to and from work.  Now is not the time to cut service that helps people commute to work or enables the unemployed to look for work.”

I understand that transit agencies around the nation are facing significant fiscal challenges, but passing the buck to the poor and working class is not the answer.  I’d suggest that states look at other options, no matter how unpopular (e.g., raising the gas tax or increasing the tolls on public roads).  Listen up car drivers, please don’t shoot the messenger, but over the years transit fares around the country have been raised continuously while gas taxes have remained flat.  We cannot expect the poor and working class to bare the brunt of our state’s fiscal crisis.

I say spread the pain and implement increases across all forms of transportation (e.g., transit fares, gas taxes, toll hikes, etc.).  And yes, in case you were wondering, I do own a car and I use it to commute.