STUCK: Public transit's moment arrives just as public spending disappears

More Americans are riding public transit than ever before, and not a moment too soon, because between oil's direct and indirect costs, climate change, the expense of roadworks, and the scaling problems of private cars, the increasingly urbanized nation needs something to keep its cities from imploding under the logistical challenge of getting everyone everywhere.

Not to mention that the property-speculation bubble has driven not just toilet-cleaners and daycare workers out of the cities' core, but everyone who is not, in some technical sense, an actual financial institution. If your daily commute is the single biggest predictor of your happiness, then we're teeing a lot of people up for some serious grief.

The same forces of financialization that have converted a basic human need — shelter — into an asset class that governments are incentivized to make more expensive have also rejected taxation as a form of coercive violence that violates the alleged human right to private property.

As a result, public transit — which can only ever be sustainable through public spending, thanks to its massive capital costs and huge externalities — has seen its per-rider budget slashed for year after year, and systems have made do by putting off maintenance until tomorrow.

Tomorrow has arrived. Trains need to be replaced. Tracks need to be replaced. The senior drivers and technicians are due for retirement, and the ranks below them are filled with undertrained, "flexible," temporary workers who aren't qualified to replace them and lack the sense of duty to the system that a job for life demands.

This is what BART's Twitter manager was going on about when he started his #thisisourreality hashtag, explaining that BART, a transit system "built to serve 100k per week that now serves 430k per day," needed 90 miles of new rail, and that "much of our system has reached the end of its useful life," urging readers to support a bond measure that would put billions into the system.

If BART and Huckaby are trying to manipulate riders into voting for increased financing—and they claim they're not—you can hardly blame them. Mass transit is starved for cash. The money that funds mass transit, whether it's bus, train, light rail, or trolley, comes from a mix of four sources: riders, federal subsidies, state subsidies, and local transit support, usually through property taxes. And all of them are shrinking. On the federal side, most of that money comes from the federal gas tax: 18.4 cents on a gallon of regular gas 24.3 cents on the gallon for diesel, with 81-percent going to fund highways and the remaining 19 percent going to mass transit. That's right—mass transit depends on people driving cars for a significant portion of its federal funding.

Unfortunately the Highway Trust Fund is perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy. The fund was designed to collect the gas tax and dispense it to states and municipalities to spend on their transit projects. The money collected was to roughly equal the money dispensed minus reserves. Since 2008, however, the fund has spent more than it's received. The issue is that while costs, partly due to inflation, have increased the gas tax has remained the same since 1993, not keeping pace with inflation. At the same time, cars become more efficient, which means people are buying fewer gallons of gas. The end result is less funding for transit, and a find that's only managed to stay afloat this far through congressional dispensation.

The Immobile Masses: Why Traffic Is Awful and Public Transit Is Worse
[Kendra Pierre-Louis/Motherboard]