Public transportation is an affordable mobility option for residents of communities nationwide, but it’s too frequently underfunded. This results in low-quality service and low ridership. It also forces people with low incomes to buy cars and encourages increased carbon emissions.
To help address these issues, several advocate and research organizations have proposed a $20 billion annual program to support bus and train operations. Representative Hank Johnson (D-GA) recently introduced a related bill in the US House of Representatives.
Additional federal transit operations support could go a long way toward improving mobility access for communities nationwide. It would not only improve the quality of transit service, but it would also facilitate more equitable access in cities and towns of all sizes. In new research, I show current constraints and future opportunities for improved access to public transportation.
Current transit operations funding is biased toward wealthier, more liberal communities
Today, the federal government has only a minor role in funding US transit operations, supporting the cost of only about 7 percent of the nation’s bus and rail services before the pandemic. State and local governments, on the other hand, funded much more. They provide intergovernmental grants to supplement fares, fees, and direct taxes raised by transit agencies.
The reliance on state and local funds creates inequities. State governments fund local transit agencies at higher levels when state residents are more liberal and when those governments are controlled by Democrats. This means that dominant political attitudes may inhibit access to quality transportation options for people who want or need to ride transit.
And local governments fund transit more generously when local incomes are higher. Indeed, communities with low levels of poverty and higher shares of white people have better transit service than places with many families with low incomes and people of color.
Moreover, expanding sources of local and state revenues may reinforce inequalities between communities. There are many places, like Austin, Texas, where voters agreed to pay increased taxes to improve transit. But residents’ ability to raise funding locally depends on local resources, which means wealthier places can raise more money from residents, and more liberal residents are more likely to support such investments.
In contrast, the small amount of funding the federal government allocates to transit operations is based on current funding formulas (PDF), so it’s much more equitably distributed. But expanding federal transit support for operations has proven difficult because of restrictions made by federal agencies that limit most federal allocations to capital investments, like purchasing new buses or building new rail lines.