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Public transit’s missed opportunity

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Why big plans to fund car-free transit in the late ‘60s and ‘70s didn’t quite add up

Passengers ride the Lexington Avenue IRT Line in the New York subway system.
Corbis via Getty Images

Nobody would blame New York City commuters for being disheartened after a year of disappointments, when subway stations were turned into waterfalls and the gubernatorial candidate championing transit reform was defeated.

A newly proposed MTA budget, rife with evidence of service failures, funding shortfalls, and plummeting ridership, portends more of the same for the foreseeable future.

Turn back the clock nearly 50 years, and hand-wringing about the decline of public transportation in the United States was just as commonplace is it is today. A story from 1969 captured similar angst: “Increasingly, the commuter who daily faces the threat of cancellations, breakdowns, overcrowding, and long delays has been showing a lack of patience with such explanations.”

After all, public transit ridership plummeted after World War II, as suburban growth, fueled by inner-city highway construction and government support for the car industry robbed buses, trains, and rail lines of paying customers.

Between 1945 and 1969, the number of U.S. transit passengers dropped from 23 billion to 8 billion.

Prevailing opinion says that the United States just isn’t a nation of public transit. We’re too big and too spread out, lacking the urban density to make rail and transit profitable. Others have noted that the nation’s view of transit as a public service, and corresponding focus on low fares, starves systems of needed funds and creates a “vicious cycle.”

But despite this issue, there was a period of time, between the late ’60 and late ’70s, when federal support of mass transit was a more serious part of policy discussions in Washington, D.C., and a different trajectory seemed possible. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter was talking about spending $50 billion on public transit over a decade, aiming to take a “quantum jump” that would “reclaim and revitalize America’s transit systems.”

President Johnson presents a pen to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass) after signing into law a $90 million rapid rail transit research bill aimed at alleviating the nation’s jammed highways and airports.
Bettmann Archive

Helping a nation of travelers

President Carter’s quantum jump began with a small step from a predecessor in 1964. Early in his tenure, President Lyndon Johnson focused on championing the causes of the late John F. Kennedy. These causes included urban transportation.

“We are a nation of travelers,” said Johnson during the signing of the Urban Mass Transportation Act in 1964. “You cannot write our history without devoting many chapters to the pony express, the stagecoach, the railroad, the automobile, the airplane. Yet, until 1964, the federal government did little or nothing to help the urban commuter.”

In the early ’60s, many planners felt that mass transit was a necessary national priority for urban development, despite decades of postwar deterioration due to competition from the automobile. Kennedy shared this belief, and since transit often transcended local and even state boundaries, he argued the federal government must make it a priority.

After authorizing a relatively small $75 million in federal funding for transit in a 1961 housing bill, Kennedy began championing mass transit, aggressively pushing for a program of matching funds the following year. One of his congressional supporters, Senator Harrison Williams, summed up part of the President’s argument when he said the country needed to improve and expand existing mass transit, and that, otherwise, it would deteriorate and become “‘an instrument of torture’ during rush hour.”

The half-billion-dollar measure would eventually be stopped by the Senate in the fall of 1962. After Johnson assumed the Presidency following JFK’s assassination, he made sure the program was approved. Signed into law in July 9, 1964, the measure promised $375 million in capital assistance to local agencies over the next three years.

Johnson, whose Great Society social welfare programs reshaped the federal government, and its role in everyday life, began his legislative agenda with a larger focus on housing. But he would see housing and transportation, as well as access to jobs, as three interlinked issues. Later in his time as president, in 1968, he would propose the Urban Mass Transit Administration, which would later be renamed the Federal Transit Administration in 1991.

A view of the Walt Whitman Bridge, which crosses the Delaware River at South Philadelphia and leads to New Jersey suburbs, in August 1973.
Dick Swanson

This federal push for more mass transit would help fund projects across the country, including supporting the Bay Area’s BART system as well as transit in Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

In realizing Kennedy’s vision, Johnson did two key things: He established a federal role in mass transit policy, and began laying the groundwork for expansion during the ’70s, a decade in which political, economic, and environmental trends would conspire to create a favorable scenario for transit expansion.

The forces align and momentum builds

Johnson’s push for public transit funding would, in some form or another, be embraced by the next three presidents, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. Nixon would sign the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1970, adding $12 billion worth of matching funds to transit projects while Ford signed a bill in 1974 adding an additional $11.8 billion to the cause.

“This marks the day when the automobile stops getting a monopoly of favored treatment from the federal government,” said San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto after the 1974 bill was signed.

While the three presidents weren’t exactly enthusiastic transit supporters, political forces aligned in ways that gave them more reason to back buses and rail. The nascent environmental movement, the founding of Earth Day, and the energy crisis created by the OPEC embargo, made an embrace of lower-emission rail and bus service both a practical and progressive stance.

The reform was also kickstarted by increased urban air pollution. At a time when New York pollution was so thick, residents occasionally had trouble seeing the city’s bridges, the case for public transit was literally in the air. A coalition of big city mayors, led by New York City’s John Lindsey, championed transit investment (in 1969, they proposed a plan to spend $10 billion on transit, using funds from an auto excise tax). The passage of local anti-pollution laws in the ‘60s built up to the 1970 passage of the Clean Air Act.

The momentum created by increased federal funding, and a greater realization of the negative side effects of auto-focused development, began to pay off. According to transit historian Brian Cudahy, the early ’70s was the start of a nationwide “transit renaissance” in the United States. In 1973 alone, mass transit carried 7 percent more riders than the year before. During this period, as the federal government made substantial investments in transit—between 1970 and 1980, it was one of the fastest-growing items in the federal budget—conditions seemed ideal for a change.

A prototype of the BART train in 1968.
Corbis via Getty Images

By 1979, Ernest Holsendolph wrote in the New York Times that “the time may be right, mass transit advocates say, to capitalize on a trend and actively discourage auto use as a matter of national policy.”

“We are struggling against the tide of increased automobile driving”

So why didn’t these programs have more of an impact, or lead to bigger, better transit systems across the nation? Each project, and city, has its own story. But on a federal level, despite more hunger for alternatives, not enough was invested to be truly transformative. Holsendolph’s 1979 article summed up commuter sentiment: “many travelers, searching for an alternative to the automobile, have nowhere to turn.”

President Ford, even as he signed an $11 billion bill to fund mass transit in 1974, said the public still considered buses and subways to be a “painful last resort.”

Numerous transit agencies in the ’70s were faced with a familiar dilemma; increased ridership, spiraling operating costs, and budget woes. A New York Times article from 1974 looked at Portland’s then-new bus system that, despite attracting 17 percent more passengers, had racked up 45 percent more debt.

Opponents of transit called increased funding a “big-city boondoggle,” and in many ways—cost overruns and delayed openings plagued the BART, for example—they were right. One program often showcased as a sign of federal waste was the Morgantown People Mover, a personal rapid-transit system of podcars for the small West Virginia city of 30,000 that went wildly over-budget, costing tens of millions more than initially expected.

The Morgantown People Mover

The decade enshrined federal support of mass transit, but funding then, and in ensuing decades, never approached the levels needed to radically expand systems, or provide the capital necessary to kickstart larger networks and provide true alternatives to car-centric infrastructure.

President Carter, an environmental champion who famously put solar panels on the White House roof, initially didn’t put his weight behind transit, only coming around to increased investment later in his term. For instance, Carter signed increases in transit funding, but his administration lacked the “follow-through,” according to the then-head of the American Public Transportation Association, needed to be truly transformative.

A 5-cent per gallon gasoline tax for mass transit funding, which would have created a solid source of income, was proposed by the administration but never seriously supported.

Many of the issues U.S. cities face today have remained. Despite increased concern about traffic, automobiles still received the lion’s share of transit funding and support. The 1970 legislation, which established federal matching funds for mass transit projects, offered 2 federal dollars for every 1 local dollar. Roadways received 10 federal dollars for every single local dollar.

In 1979, during widespread consternation about rising oil prices, the head of transportation and land-use policy at the Environmental Protection Agency said, “we are struggling against the tide of increased automobile driving and displaced development patterns.”

By 1980, the federal government provided 17 percent of the nation mass transit’s funding. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, on a platform promising to pare back the federal government, reversed the trend of increased transit funding from D.C. While the 1982 transportation act he signed did include a 5 cent per gallon increase in the gasoline tax, with 1 cent dedicated to mass transit, there wasn’t hunger for substantial new investments in infrastructure.

Throughout his two terms, Reagan would seek to cut or eliminate transit funding multiple times. In 1981, he cut mass transit funding by 32 percent, and in 1985, he proposed cutting all operating subsidies and eliminating two-thirds of capital investment, which would have taken billions from public transportation funding. Subsequent presidents would initiate additional programs to support mass transit, such as the Obama-era TIGER programs, but they don’t match the scale of past proposals.

Changing the nation’s travel habits is much more complicated than simply throwing more federal dollars at the problem, especially with the nation’s history of incredibly expensive, and in some cases wasteful, infrastructure projects. And previous development patterns add an additional challenge.

But the combination of gridlock, environmental concern, and frankly, urban necessity has created the conditions to begin rethinking how this country gets around. By learning from the mistakes of the past, perhaps today’s transit advocates can use similar challenges to create critical mass for change.