Operating assistance

Mass transportation requires money not only for the construction of new projects but also for the day-to-day operations of transit service. With few exceptions, federal dollars are unable to finance major operating expenses, including fuel and energy, wages and salaries, employee benefits and administrative costs. Due to such unreliable and insufficient funding, transit agencies across New York State and the country have had to cut transit service and increase fares. These cuts and service reductions have a disproportionate impact on low-income individuals, communities of color, and others who rely on mass transit.

Transit operating assistance was traditionally an eligible expense for funds under previous federal mass transit programs.  Congress first authorized the funding for transit operations, under the National Mass Transportation Act of 1974.  Recognizing that mass transit was an essential public service that had a significant impact on the welfare of many low-income people, Congress called for, “immediate substantial Federal assistance…to enable many mass transportation systems to continue to provide vital service.”  The 1974 Act also required that transit operations projects have a non-federal match of at least 50 percent, a matching requirement that remains in place today.

Following President Ronald Reagan’s push to eliminate all federal funding for transit operations by 1984, Congress passed new legislation in 1982 that placed new restrictions on operations funding. This Act capped the amount of funds apportioned for operating expenses to urban and rural areas at 40 to 95 percent, as well a constrained funds from the newly created Mass Transit Account for capital-only projects.  Under the current bill, SAFETEA-LU, urbanized areas with populations equal or greater than 200,000 are limited to spending federal dollars on preventive maintenance but not for other major operating costs. Certain programs allow for some flexibility in spending, however, transit operations funding is extremely limited at the federal level.

These policies place an inequitable burden on those who most rely on mass transit. Africans Americans and Latino’s comprise over 54% of transit users nationwide (62% of bus riders, 35%, of subway riders, and 29% of commuter rail riders)  and a recent report by American Public Transportation Association indicates that individuals who make less the $50,000 account for over 60% of all transit users nationwide.   Here in the New York metropolitan region, residents spend 14.5% of their family budget on transportation, surpassed only by shelter and food. The poorest families devote nearly 40% of their take home pay to transportation.

While it is crucial that the federal government increase the overall pot of money for mass transit to expand our current infrastructure, it is essential for the transit dependant and the solvency of our transit agencies that federal funding be dedicated to maintain our current system. Transit riders across the country and here in New York are already paying out of their own pocket for the unbalanced and inequitable distribution of transportation dollars. Now is the time for the federal government to address these environmental and social equity needs and put mass transit back on track.


– National Mass Transportation Act of 1974, Pub. L. No. 93-503, 2, 88 Stat. 1565 (1974).

-Bullard, Robert. “ Smart Growth Meets Environmental Justice.” Growing Smarter: Achieving Livable Communities, Environmental Justice, and Regional Equity. The MIT Press, 2007. 38.

-American Public Transportation Association. May 2007. A Profile of Public Transportation Passenger Demographics and Travel Characteristics Reported in On-Board Surveys. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from: http://www.apta.com/government_affairs/policy/documents/transit_passenger_characteristics_07.pdf