How did it get to this point? A brief history of Mass Transportation in the USA.

It was 52 years ago when Uncle Sam put the nation’s mass transportation companies on welfare. It all started in 1964, the Year of the Ford Mustang. Back then mass transit companies were businesses run by private parties in competition with each other.

Within a decade almost every private mass transportation company in the nation was taken over by government bureaucracies overseen by politicians. As part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program the workers at these companies were automatically enrolled in the most comprehensive benefits and union labor arrangements conceivable.

The next forty years of subsidies kept these zombie transit monopolies alive as movers of those who can’t take a car and employers of last resort for all kinds of people who needed good jobs. In Communist China Chairman Mao used a similar tactic of giving people good government jobs for life and it came to be known as the “golden rice bowl.”

It turned out, both here and in China that a program which severs the connections between those getting served and those getting paid ends up becoming seriously expensive and ultimately unsustainable. In China they instituted market based price signals for central planning, tossed out the golden rice bowls and ended up doing quite well.

Here in San Francisco we hire public relations experts to spread pro public transit propaganda in hopes that the public won’t notice that our transit system averages 8 MPH while killing and maiming hundreds of innocent people per year.

Now, in San Francisco we pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in compensation to transit planners and traffic engineers who can not design and install so much as a protected bike path without screwing it up in a dozen different ways. And we automatically give them a big fat pay raise every year.

Where did it all start? How did we get here?

1954: Dawn of the Interstate Highway Era

Vice President Richard Nixon represented his boss, President Eisenhower, at a meeting of the nation’s governors in Lake George, NY. The Vice President told the governors of the administration’s plan to build a new network of coast-to-coast highways, a project that soon came to be called the Interstate Highway System. For its future ground transportation needs, the United States was making a major investment in new roadways … but in very little else.

1960: A First Attempt Fails

A bill was introduced in the Senate that would have provided federal assistance for mass transportation. While it actually passed the Senate, it never emerged from committee in the House of Representatives.

1961: Federal Assistance for Mass Transportation Becomes Law of the Land!

President John F. Kennedy supports a proposal to establish federal assistance for mass transportation, introduced in the Senate again, this time as part of a larger urban housing bill, and it was enacted into law. President Kennedy signed the Omnibus Housing Act on June 30, 1961 and said that mass transportation is “…a distinctly urban problem and one of the key factors in shaping community development.”

The 1961 act did not initiate broad scale federal assistance for mass transportation. It provided $50 million for loans and $25 million—taken out of urban renewal funds—in outright grants for demonstration pilot projects in mass transportation. Said The New York Times: “This is essentially an interim program, pending broader Administration requests next year.”

1962: Capital Assistance for Mass Transportation Proposed. . .

President Kennedy sends a major transportation message to Congress. It called for the establishment of a program of federal capital assistance for mass transportation. Said President Kennedy: “To conserve and enhance values in existing urban areas is essential. But at least as important are steps to promote economic efficiency and livability in areas of future development. Our national welfare therefore requires the provision of good urban transportation, with the properly balanced use of private vehicles and modern mass transport to help shape as well as serve urban growth.”

. . . But President Kennedy does not live to see the bill enacted into law.

July 9, 1964: President Johnson Carries Forward Kennedy’s Legacy on Transit

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Urban Mass Transportation Act into law on July 9, 1964. The new measure provided $375 million in capital assistance over three years. It passed the House by a vote of 212-to-129 and cleared the Senate 52-41.
“We are a nation of travelers. You cannot write our history without devoting many chapters to the pony express, the stagecoach, the railroad, the automobile, the airplane. . . Yet, until 1964, the Federal Government did little or nothing to help the urban commuter.” – President Lyndon B. Johnson, on Remarks at the Signing of the Urban Mass Transportation Act

This history from 1954 until 1964 is from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Urban Mass Transportation Acts — Essential history — The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 (referred to here as the Act) (P. L. 88-365, 78 Stat. 302) ushered in the modern era of financing mass transportation research, planning, and operations in the United States principally through federal grants and loans. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Act into law in 1964 as part of his Great Society programs. However, it was a speech to Congress in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy that provided the impetus for federal participation in local transportation funding. In that speech President Kennedy articulated the need for federal financial assistance in fostering urban development and renewal through the planning and implementation of regional mass transportation systems across the country. — Source: 

That article continues, The act authorized grants and loans to assist states and local public bodies and agencies in financing mass transportation capital project costs, specifically including “the acquisition, construction, reconstruction, and improvement of facilities and equipment for use … in mass transportation service in urban areas and in coordinating such service with highway and other transportation in such areas.” The act authorized $375 million for a three–year period, fiscal year (FY) 1965 through FY1967. By 1998 total authorizations had increased to $41 billion for the six years, FY1998 through FY2003, with $36 billion guaranteed (Federal Transit Act of 1998).

Source: State of the SFMTA, September 21, 2010.

Section 13(c) of the act required state and local governments to make arrangements to preserve transit workers exercising collective-bargaining rights as a condition of receiving federal assistance in acquiring a privately owned transit company.


The Urban Mass Transportation Assistance Act of 1970 (UMTAA) added acquisition of real property to the list of qualified uses of federal funds…

The National Mass Transportation Assistance Act of 1974 contained language requiring transit systems to charge elderly and handicapped persons half-fares during off-peak hours. That law also authorized states and localities to use up to one-half of funds received under the act to defray transit system operating expenses.

The Federal Public Transportation Act of 1978 expanded the authorized uses of funds to include capital and operating assistance for fixed rail projects, empowered the secretary to convert preexisting loans into grants, and established the creation of “metropolitan planning organizations” (MPOs).

President Reagan then signed the  Federal Public Transportation Act of 1982 which, to his credit tried to address the operating expenses aspect of transit spending and federal grant money.

Congress later increased the cap on financial assistance for operating expenses by 32.2 percent for urban areas with populations of less than 200,000, over the veto of President Reagan (Federal Mass Transportation Act of 1987 [FMTA])

The name of the agency was changed to the Federal Transit Administration in 1991. Metropolitan Planning Organizations became more powerful.

The Federal Transit Act Amendments of 1998 is where the clean fuel grant program originated. This was to encourage the purchasing or leasing of clean-fuel buses and facilities.

The list of permissible uses for federal funds was expanded in 1998 to include spending on preventive maintenance, non-fixed route (or door-to-door) paratransit service (for passengers with some physical or mental disability), safety equipment and facilities, equipment and facilities leases,  & community facilities such as daycare and healthcare. Unfortunately for San Francisco urban areas with populations of over 200,000 were no longer permitted to use federal dollars to help defray operating expenses.

[To read more details about this amazing history at click here.]


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