There is only so much room on city streets, as any observer in downtown Boston or Harvard Square at five o'clock knows. The various forms of mass transit--subways, elevateds, buses, and commuter trains--take up far less space per passenger than do private automobiles. Yet fewer and fewer people use mass transit systems each year, while the number of cars in use has increased more than 50 per cent in the last ten years.
Most urban transit corporations, like the MTA and the New Haven Railroad, operate at huge losses and cannot afford the new facilities, the equipment and the more frequent schedules needed to attract more passengers. Consequently, revenue--and the level of equipment and service--continue to fall. The MTA carries far fewer people today than when it was formed in 1947, and it had a deficit last year of sixteen million dollars; the plight of the New Haven's commuter lines is well-known.
The current federal aid program, a 1961 stopgap measure, ends June 30. Fortunately, an administration bill sponsored by Harrison Williams of New Jersey was easily passed last week in the Senate and faces good prospects in the House.
The Williams Bill would provide $750 million in loans and, where necessary, outright grants, for mass transit projects: to build new railroad and subway lines, to buy new buses and rolling stock, to build stations and parking lots and to improve existing facilities. Any viable system, public or private, might receive aid, although the government could not pay directly for more than two-thirds of all costs.
Already, research projects financed by the 1961 law have increased commuter flow into Boston on the New Haven, and the Boston and Maine Railroads. The Mass Transportation Commission, using federal and state money, subsidized fare decreases and increases in service; enough passengers are continuing to ride these lines to make the changes permanently profitable.
Boston's transit systems, though already extensive, might still benefit from the Williams Bill. The MTA, currently operating with a heavy deficit, could quality for federal loans or grants to rebuild the Charlestown El and extend it to Medford and Malden. Builders of the proposed South Shore monorail might also borrow or be given federal money.
The Williams Bill cannot solve every problem in this area, however. It would expire in three years and could not directly meet the deficits that plague the MTA and the commuter lines. But it would provide capital to help get them running on a feasible financial basis. No one can force commuters to use mass transit facilities, but the results of the projects on the Boston area railroads indicate that more passengers will use mass transportation if it is made sufficiently convenient and attractive.
The Administration's bill would help solve a problem which cuts across state and local boundaries and which, if left alone, can only bring more financial burdens on debt-ridden local governments. Congress has long since appropriated $41 billion for highways which have done little to help and in some cases have aggravated urban traffic problems. It would make little sense for the House to refuse three-quarter billion dollars for mass transit systems which will clear up city streets.