As transit ridership struggles to recover to pre-pandemic levels, leaving many transit agencies facing large budget gaps, a new report suggests state funding could help transit systems avoid service cuts and fare hikes.
“At a time when transit agencies are facing heavy financial stress, state support can be a key source of funding that allows transit to continue delivering reliable service,” Transportation for America, T4A, said Wednesday in its transit report card. The transit advocacy group, in partnership with the National Campaign for Transit Justice, analyzed the quality and availability of transit support across the U.S.
State spending on public transportation varies widely. According to T4A’s transit report card, Hawaii, Massachusetts and New York each spent more than $200 per capita on transit in 2021. But the vast majority of states, including most states in the Southeast, Southwest and Great Plains, spent less than $12.50 per person that year on public transportation within their borders.
Gas taxes are “the bedrock revenue stream for most states’ transportation systems,” the report states, but some states partially or fully prohibit the use of gas taxes for public transportation. Seven states have statutory prohibitions, which the report suggests could be repealed to open that revenue stream for use on transit. Another 23 states prohibit gas tax revenues from being used for public transit in their state constitutions, but the report notes that the wording of those provisions “may be vague or flexible enough to leave room for transit to receive funding.”
States including California, Connecticut, New York and Virginia allow gas tax revenues to be used to support transit, “which can serve as a lifeline in times of economic stress,” the report card states.
“State spending is a strong indicator of state priorities, and low spending (coupled with a lack of funding options) is a clear sign that transit service is not at the top of state legislators’ minds,” the report concludes.