It is not unusual that I read an article, an editorial, or a letter to the editor about the seemingly exorbitant cost of public transportation, the constant operating deficit of the system and the need to raise ticket prices.
It does not matter if we are talking about Amtrak, Long Island Railroad or even the New York City subway system. All of these systems are similarly challenged for their inability to cover costs through ticket prices.
Then, inevitably, the author demands that the managing agency impose budget cuts, increase ticket prices and somehow address this egregious failure to balance the budget.
I read these articles and diatribes and think that the whole premise of the analysis is wrong.
Public transportation is about paying it forward, that is, investing in the future. Any money invested in public transportation by the government to meet the difference between expenses and ticket prices is not a failure of balancing a budget. It is about paying less now so as to avoid the greater costs we will have if we do not take action immediately to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
If we continue to ignore the larger context in which public transportation resides and insist on applying simplistic economic analysis to a complicated system impacting a broad range of conditions and situations, we will jeopardize the very existence of public transportation as a reliable, affordable, accessible piece of the solution to two of our most pressing issues today: climate change and income inequity.
Consider this: all those people traveling on the train, whether Amtrak or the Long Island Railroad or even the New York City subway have to get to where they are going one way or another.
Some of them may be able to switch to driving if we price them out of the train or if they decide it is not worth the cost to take the train. More people on the road means more traffic, more air pollution, more greenhouse gas emissions.
All of which means more frustration and stress-related concerns and behavior increased health issues related to air pollution such as asthma and even cancer, as well as a greater rise in global temperatures and all the associated consequences of that. It also means fewer people switching to public transportation and taking cars off the road, or starting a habit of using public transportation as they enter adulthood.
Lower-income members of our community may not have the option to drive and may be forced to forego going to work, school, and appointments altogether. This will result in loss of jobs, increased individual health problems, inability to provide for their children, whose education and future success will be impacted, and which will expand the gulf separating our country into the haves and have nots.
Ensuring a reliable, affordable, and accessible public transportation system with government funding to make up the difference between the cost to run such a system and the price to use such a system helps us avoid the far more expensive bill the Government (therefore we) will have to pay to address the health, environmental, education, and social costs of not doing so.
So, when you read something about how the public transportation system needs to cut costs and raise ticket prices because it is operating at a deficit, look for where the writer calculates the cost to society of the consequences of not having a public transportation system.
Doesn’t it make more sense for us to run a deficit now to support public transportation than to pay more down the road for the medical care we are going to need because of all the extra cars on the road and the added stress people are under because they cannot get to work or school?
Shouldn’t we address human-caused greenhouse gas emissions before we have to pay to move everyone from coastal areas that will be underwater or areas destroyed by wildfires?
Public transportation is not a system to which we should apply business economics. Public transportation is a social good we all should pay into through our taxes because we all benefit from the advantages of public transportation. It is an investment in a better future that costs less than the consequences of not funding it would cost.