by James A. Bacon
In fiscal year 2018, the Commonwealth of Virginia budgeted $582 million for the Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT). Spending on trains, buses and other forms of public transit has soared to $935 million in the current year (fiscal 2022) and is expected to fall back somewhat to $865 million in Governor Ralph’s submitted budget. Northam for fiscal year 2023.
Assuming lawmakers didn’t tweak the numbers much in recent General Assembly deliberations, DRPT spending will be 49% higher than it was five years ago.
In the graph above, you can see how out of touch spending is with reality. Transit ridership in Northern Virginia, which accounts for the vast majority of bus and commuter rail traffic in the state, fell 59% overall between fiscal years 2020 and 2021. Railway Express fell 92%.
In what world does it make sense to increase spending on public transit by almost 50% even though ridership has dropped by almost 60%?
Once upon a time, you could build an intellectually respectable case for bolstering transit spending, especially in major Virginia metropolitan areas. In densely populated districts where it is impossible to increase transport capacity by building new roads, it theoretically makes sense to increase capacity by offering people the option of traveling by bus or train. This logic makes all the more sense during the 2010s, a period marked by strong urban renewal across Virginia. People were returning to urban centers, developers were constructing mid-rise and high-rise buildings, and the influx of affluent passengers living in bus and train corridors could be expected to fill the seats. and pay the fares.
Admittedly, there have been signs for some time that the pink ridership projections will not materialize. Transit ridership plateaued, then began to erode several years ago. Uber and Lyft were largely blamed.
Then came COVID. Passengers stayed away from buses and trains for fear of catching the virus. It was reasonable to hope that these runners would return when the pandemic receded. But another thing happened. Millions of Americans have found they love working from home and, contrary to the fears of supervisors around the world, they are working more productively than in the office. Sure, they’d be momentarily distracted doing the laundry or feeding the cat, but they wasted no time chatting. by the coffee machine about the UVa-Tech football game, gossiping about co-workers, or gossiping with office mates about the boss.
Virginians have reduced their driving during the COVID-induced recession. Total vehicle miles traveled fell from 86.8 million miles in 2019 to 74.5 million miles in the first year of COVID, 2020 – a 14.2% drop (I didn’t could find data for 2021.) But the decline in public transport has been much more acute.
The big question is whether driving and ridership will bounce back, and by how much. It would be prudent to expect a partial return to pre-COVID habits. At the same time, policy makers in Virginia must consider the possibility that modes of transportation have changed permanently: that the workplace of millions of Americans has shifted from the office to the home, and that rush hour no longer never be the same again.
Virginia needs to carefully consider the billions of dollars it spends on transportation. This includes roads and highways. But nowhere is the need for reassessment more glaringly evident than for public transit.
No such overhaul is likely to occur as long as Virginia enjoys a revenue stream from the COVID stimulus and inflation. But the ride can’t go on forever, and at some point we’ll have to start making hard choices again. Unless bus and train ridership increases, the first place to start cutting is public transit.