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Cities seek funding to avoid public transit 'death spiral'

As ridership is down in many cities across the U.S., some agencies are scrambling to secure funding to remain operational.
Passengers hope public transit funding stays on track with their needs
Posted at 1:08 PM, Jun 26, 2023

Public transit agencies across the United States are struggling, not just for passengers, but for funding, too. Nowhere is that more on display than in California, where state lawmakers are on track for a billion-dollar bailout so their public transit can stay operational.

In San Francisco, ridership on the local transit system is down 32% compared to before the pandemic. In Washington, D.C., rail ridership is down 50%. Now officials are warning a $750 million budget shortfall is on the horizon, resulting in route cuts, fewer trains and longer wait times. A presentation at a recent metro meeting even warned of a potential "transit death spiral."

SEE MORE: Underfunded US public transit puts reliability, safety at risk

The transit issues nationwide are partially the result of changing work habits. As more Americans are working from home, fewer people are using public transit to commute. Inflation has also led to higher operating costs.

Until now, many cities have been able to absorb the losses because of pandemic aid from Congress. But that funding is set to run out soon, and lawmakers in Washington are more interested in spending cuts than spending increases or tax hikes for public transit funding.

As a result, more of the burden is set to fall on states and cities where subsidies are already occurring.

SEE MORE: Is public transit becoming less safe?

For instance, the QLine in Detroit is set to receive $5 million a year in subsidies until 2039. In Los Angeles, the Metro is rolling out a plan next month to charge riders a fee of $5 per day. In Denver, transit officials have reintroduced "free rides" in July and August, but it isn't necessarily free. Lawmakers have approved close to $30 million in taxpayer dollars in recent years to make it happen.

Whether or not any of these ideas work is still very much unclear. But if you're a frequent rider of public transit, your commute could be in limbo in the coming months as agencies scramble for funding.

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