How the Mass Transit Plan Hurts the Poor


April 18, 2018 9:21AM

One of the many criticisms transit skeptics have mentioned with the mass-transit proposal is the burden it would place on the most vulnerable, particularly senior citizens and those with a lower socioeconomic status (SES). Those with a fixed or little disposable income cannot afford a near 11% increase in the sales tax.

However, what often isn’t mentioned is how the services these very same people depend on often gets cut when cities build light-rail systems. Seniors and those in a lower SES are the least likely to have access to a vehicle and depend on the bus for transportation. Unless they are lucky enough to be one of the 15% of Davidson County residents that lives within a walkable distance of one of the new light-rail lines, they will still be dependent on the bus system.

While it is true that the mass-transit proposal does allocate funds to improve existing bus system, history shows us that it’s only a matter of time before bus service gets cut to keep expensive light-rail systems afloat.

One example is Portland. With a population of nearly 640,000, Portland is a very comparable city in terms of population with Nashville. The city has long been held as the gold standard for light-rail and mixed-use development for medium-sized cities. Due to ever increasing costs, particularly pension costs that came with more city employees to operate the larger light-rail system, TriMet is on schedule to cut bus services by 75% from 2013 to 2025. This is after service had already been cut by 14% from 2009 to 2013.

Even more telling is the city of Los Angeles. In the early 1990’s the Los Angeles MTA approved a $75 billion light-rail plan. With crazy cost overruns, the agency looked to cut bus service to help subsidize the boondoggle light-rail plan. A grassroots movement revolted and the NAACP agreed to represent the residents and sued the city transit agency, noting that the bus system ridership was 80% minority. The courts mandated that the city not build any more light-rail lines for 10 years for the bus system to recover.

Want even more proof these cuts will happen eventually? The official transit plan estimates once the system is fully operational, it will run at a $100 million deficit per year. If that is the official government estimate, what will the budget shortfall actually end up at? Who knows. Where will the shortfall come from? Either higher fares, cuts to the bus service, or higher taxes. Either way, the people who can least afford it, will bear the brunt of the costs.