CARS HOMES JOBS

Long-term transit plan a big need

Saturday, February 1, 2014
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The Capital District Transportation Authority is having a “very, very good year in customer boardings,” according to CEO Carm Basile.

He’s right; CDTA’s bus fleet carried 16.3 million people in 2013 and could have the highest ridership in 30 years when it ends its fiscal year in March.

To meet growing demand, the authority on Sunday increased hours and frequency on the BusPlus route between Albany and Schenectady, and on some other routes, too. The equivalent of 15 more people have been hired.

All of which is great — BusPlus’ limited-stop service being an innovative idea that’s getting national attention — except nobody really wants to pay for it.

Customers balked at a 2009 fare increase and fled the bus system; ridership didn’t bounce back until gas prices climbed and routes were redesigned to conform to demand. The federal and state governments pick up about half CDTA’s costs, but neither has been Santa-esque in recent years, as they struggle with their own financial issues.

CDTA’s board in December adopted an $80 million tentative budget for 2014-15 with a $7 million deficit. Basile has been quick to add that by the time a final budget is needed in March, he’s confident the books will be balanced — but that’s not the same as having a long-term financial plan.

With its costs rising for everything from driver wages to diesel fuel, CDTA has borrowed millions of dollars in two of the last three years to make its annual bus purchases.

The one consolation of the authority’s financial distress may be that transit agencies across the country are feeling the same squeeze — more people looking to ride for environmental or financial reasons, but nobody willingly bearing the real costs, which are roughly quadruple what customers drop in the fare box.

Basile and other upstate transit leaders will make their case in Albany over the next few weeks.

“We need more money. We need more predictability,” said Basile, who is also president of the New York Public Transit Association.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2014 budget proposes a $420,000 increase — about 1.35 percent — in CDTA’s annual operating aid.

“We appreciate Governor Cuomo’s continued support of public transit and will make good use of the additional funds,” CDTA Chairman David M. Stackrow said after the budget came out.

But at a CDTA board meeting Wednesday in Rensselaer, he made it clear he thinks transit funding ultimately is a federal issue.

“There is a huge need for capital infusion to replace infrastructure,” Stackrow said. “It might be better to emphasize in Washington what our needs are.”

I want to say good luck with that, but if Congress is going to do anything, this is the year; the current federal transportation bill expires in September. Something has to happen, but pumping new money into roads, bridges and buses will require a different kind of thinking than has been seen recently in the House of Representatives.

Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx told the U.S. Conference of Mayors last week something different needs to be done to pay for transportation projects, since demand far outstrips what’s raised annually from the federal gasoline tax. He suggested Congress needs to plan better; he has a point, since there hasn’t been a long-term transportation bill since 2009.

“Part of what I hope we can do at DOT is to help our country, help everyone, all of our stakeholders, think past our noses as we think about how this transportation system has to be built,” Foxx said.

Regions should think of their highway, rail, airport and bus systems as parts of a whole, he said — but that’s not usually how Washington looks at things.

 
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