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A pittance for public transit

Donn Esmonde provided insight in his column yesterday on a proposal the NFTA is considering to raise transit fares.

I'm here to provide a little outrage on the bigger picture.

Global warming is staring us in the face. Gas is $4 a gallon, or there abouts. Transit ridership is up and more people are riding buses and subways than they have for the past 50 years.

Bus and subway operators across the nation are struggling to keep up. High fuel prices hit them, too. Equipment is aging. There's more riders than seats on some popular routes.

Where is Uncle Sam in all this? You know, the guy supposedly trying to kick his addiction to foreign oil?

Well, he's partying like its 1986. That's the year Metro Rail opened and global warming was a vague concept.

Fact is, the federal government has beat a steady retreat from funding mass transit since at least Ronald Reagan's time. The feds used to help public transit systems pay for both operations and capital improvements. That ended in 1991. Now public operators get something akin to a block grant, to spend as they see fit.

Ralph_krandem The outcome is a rob Peter to pay Paul scenario.

Or, in this case, Ralph Kramden.

The federal government this budget year has earmarked $4.6 billion in formula aid to assist systems in urban and high-grow states starting to choke on their congestion.

Federal spending in 1986, adjusted for inflation, comes to $5.4 billion.

In other words: ridership up, global warming up, federal aid down.

To put it in perspective, the federal government's spending on mass transit in cities and high growth areas equals the bill for 13 days of fighting in Iraq.

How does this play out in Buffalo-Niagara?

The NFTA will get about $11 million in federal aid this year. The state kicks in about $47 million, although that's about $1.3 million less than it was counting on, thanks to the budget crunch in Albany. Local revenues, mostly a piece of the county sales tax and mortgage recording tax, comes to about $37 million. Passenger fares come to about $28 million.

In other words, fares cover about a quarter of the overhead. Which means more ridership means more deficits. It's like a loss leader, but the NFTA has no way of making it up, at least so long as aid isn't tied to ridership, which it isn't.

NFTA Executive Director Larry Meckler doesn't have a beef with the state, which, in recent years, has increased aid faster than the rate of inflation. So have the feds, for that matter, but its a pittance compared to what it used to be and bolstered by earmarks wrangled by our Congressional delegation.

"It's getting tougher and tougher to get dollars," Meckler said. "We shouldn't have to beg for money for mass transportation.

"If you can get people on buses and trains, I think it solves a lot of problems."

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