Chicago Fed Insights

Public Transit Experts Agree on Need for Change as Fiscal Challenges Loom

May 15, 2023

Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.

—Tony Robbins, as cited by Georgia Gann Dohrmann, Assistant Director of the San Francisco Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission

As public transit experts gathered at the Chicago Fed recently to confront post-pandemic challenges, one theme kept appearing: The pain points transit agencies and commuters are facing must lead to dramatic change, and that change needs to start happening now.

The informal consensus emerged from a one-day transportation forum, Public Transit in a Post-Covid World: Building a Financially Stable, Equitable, and Accessible Mass Transit System. Held on April 13, 2023, this event was hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, along with the Civic Federation and the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago. Speakers, moderators, and panelists discussed the history of operations funding for Chicago mass transit; the looming transit funding crisis and how to solve it; how to reimagine mass transit in a way that promotes equity and accessibility; and how those involved in mass transit work must refocus their goals to achieve real change and solve fundamental problems.

Across the board, panelists agreed that the biggest concern was the rapidly approaching fiscal cliff, when transit agencies in many major cities will run out of federal emergency relief funding and face operating cost deficits. Much of this is because of a huge dip in ridership during the pandemic and because federal infrastructure funding was for capital, not operations. “We’re past the time where we can hope riders come back en masse,” said Andrew Ward, group credit officer for U.S. public finance, Fitch Ratings, a leading credit rating agency. Attracting new riders—as well as retaining current ones—is a difficult task, given service and personnel cuts and added frustrations for riders when it comes to commuting. And fare hikes would only deter riders more.

That said, improved intra-agency cooperation and fresh thinking about funding mechanisms could be a major attraction to new riders, speakers agreed. Developing integrated fare options across different modes of public transportation, for instance, could ease riders’ commutes by making them seamless. Offering free transit to those in need, such as victims of domestic violence and their children, could add essential value. In his keynote speech, Joshua Schank, managing principal, InfraStrategies LLC—a U.S. consulting firm that provides strategy and services to infrastructure programs—emphasized the importance of universal basic mobility. “Everyone is entitled to move freely,” Schank said.

Although the sense of urgency was profound, it also brought some hope. After quoting the self-help author Robbins, San Francisco transit official Dohrmann said: “The pain hasn’t been enough to force government entities and transit people to change things. Now it’s bad enough to make it so people are willing to change.”

To explore further

Go to this page to see the agenda, watch video replays, view presenters’ slide decks, and read transcripts of speeches and panels.

The views expressed in this post are our own and do not reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago or the Federal Reserve System.

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