SEPTA is not alone in facing record deficits. In fact, four of the nation’s five largest metropolitan transit agencies, including the #1 Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) of New York, the #2 Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), the #3 Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) and #5 SEPTA, face operating deficits approaching a billion dollars in comings years. The CTA just released a “doomsday” budget last week that forecasts major cuts in service along with fare increases if they were not provided with some additional $82 million by the start of 2005. Meanwhile, the most heavily used system in the country (if not the world), New York’s MTA, is increasingly having to pass the upwardly spiraling costs on to its riders, with more fare increases and service cuts imminent. Similarly, the WMATA is desperately searching for ways to avoid having to increase fares for the third straight year.
These trends do not signal a national deficiency of competence in transit management, but rather a chronic lack of funding from the federal government. Over the last four years, the Bush Administration has decimated these agencies’ ability to provide affordable and effective mass transit. Strong public transportation is not only a huge economic stimulus, it also fights sprawl, protects the environment, improves public health and makes cities and communities more viable for, not to mention attractive to, residents, visitors and businesses alike. The Bush administration has reversed decades of progress in transportation funding by drastically reducing the amount of federal money going to mass transit projects while increasing funds for highway projects. This reactionary policy has left state and municipal governments to face funding transit projects alone — an impossible task. Thus, America’s transit systems are in a financial crisis while their importance could not be any more obvious. As the current administration sabotages our cities’ transit systems, hundreds of young Americans are dying in Iraq in order to guarantee American access to the second largest oil reserves in the world. Ignorance is bliss, however, and we continue to happily cruise down Walnut Street in our shiny SUVs — the last thing Americans want to hear is that a less selfish America (i.e., American citizenry) would mean a stronger, safer America.
One can not expect a speedy, hassle free drive to the airport after blindfolding the driver and tying both his arms behind his back. Yet we constantly complain about SEPTA’s shortcomings while ignoring their cause. If only we were to properly fund public transportation, people soon would be in awe of the 21st-century city that Philadelphia (et al.) had become.