Large North American transit agencies generally have some revenue raising authority over an enormous and diverse urban area, and feel obliged to serve the same enormous area with something that can be justified as an "equitable" distribution of service. (As I explain in detail in Chapter 10 of my book Human Transit, there's no objective definition of "equitable," but that's another story.)
Most agencies rely on their voters to approve their basic revenue raising authority. So what happens if the voters over the whole agency area give transit a resounding "no," but parts of the area -- a core city for example -- does value transit and is willing to pay for it? And what should happen in the many urban regions where the whole region will pay for a low level of service but certain communities within it -- usually including the core city -- want to pay for a higher level of service?
In many areas, it's legally impossible for a transit agency to impose a higher rate of taxation of part of its service area and deliver a higher level of service in response. But why not? The ability to respond to local needs and desires is the core of what we usually think of as successful local government.
This, for example, is the current situation of Pierce Transit in the Tacoma, Washington area, which covers an urban county south of Seattle. Voters over the whole service area have refused to support new sales tax revenues that would present a truly devastating service cut. The agency has already shrunk its boundaries to remove some communities who did not value transit service and that were especially expensive to serve. Now, conversation is turning to an "Enhanced Transit Zone," which would allow parts of the region that value transit more to tax themselves more at higher rates for better transit service.
But this story is not about one agency, because it goes to why core cities whose people would value more transit are often prevented from getting it. The default approach of regional transit agencies has been for the agency to impose one level of taxation everywhere, and then to have endless arguments about how to distribute that resource over vastly dissimilar communities where some think of transit as critical and others don't. The result is almost always a special problem for older core cities, because as I argue in Chapter 10, core cities need more service per capita than newer suburbs. Because regional transit boards are often dominated by suburban interests that have trouble voting for what they see as disproportionate investment in the core city, it's mathematically inevitable that under big regional agencies, core cities will be underserved relative to their values and demand. The result is typically lots of empty buses running in outer suburbs while core city buses are overcrowded and turning people away.
The only solution I see to this problem is for core cities to be ready to start subsidizing transit service directly, over and above the level that their regional government can fund, to ensure that they get their fair share. (In theory they could also rebel and secede from the regional agency, but good networks are so fused across multiple cities that it's very hard to take them apart at city limits without massive losses in efficiency and usefulness.)
Funding of enhanced transit by core city governments is starting to happen, if in some half-concealed ways. The City of Portland, for example, directly subsidizes half of the operations of the Portland Streetcar, effectively creating an overlay of additional transit with its own operating funds. The next step will be for core cities to find ways to fund growth in the overall level of service in their networks beyond what the regional transit agency can afford.
Sure, most transit agencies and city goverments face budget crises right now, but budget crises are as good a time as any to make hard choices about what a fare distribution of service will ultimately be. One key idea is that state governments should quit prohibiting people from raising their taxes to pay for better transit service, if that is what they want to vote for.