Families' transit expenses rising, study finds


American families are spending an increasingly bigger chunk of their incomes on transportation costs - more than they spend on food and health care combined, according to a report released yesterday by a Washington-based nonprofit transportation advocacy group.

The rising cost of transportation - from car purchases to insurance to maintenance to gasoline - combined with the approximate one-third of household income spent on housing account for more than 50 percent of families' budgets in the 28 large metropolitan areas covered by the study, "Transportation Costs and the American Dream," released by the Surface Transportation Policy Project.

"It's a double whammy, if you will," said Anne Canby, the organization's president and former head of the state departments of transportation in New Jersey and Delaware.

At No. 22 on the list, Baltimore was far from the worst offender because of the availability of public transportation, which includes buses, light rail and other commuter trains, the report's authors said. But local advocates warned the news is still not good for the city. Route cutbacks and fare increases can have an immediate effect on ridership and therefore force up transportation costs, said Rich Stolz of the Washington-based Center of Community Change.

Transportation eats up the largest portion of household income in Tampa, Fla., a function of sprawl and inaccessibility of services, and the smallest portion in New York, where public transportation is widely used, followed closely by Washington.

Brent R. Flickinger, director of transportation programs at the Baltimore-based Citizens Planning and Housing Association, called the problem a stealth one.

"There's a lot of debate about health care costs going up - and that's 5 percent," he said. "Transportation is more hidden."

The growth in transportation expenditures has followed drops in transit use and the increase of suburban sprawl, the report says. The percentage of household income spent on transportation rose 10 percent from 1992 to 2001, the year on which the report is based, said Michelle Ernst, one of the report's authors. When it comes to the poorest families - whose transportation costs are an average of 40 percent of household income - that increase was nearly 33 percent over the same period, she said.

Transportation costs are becoming a major barrier to home ownership, the study says.

"If you invest in a house, you're building equity," Flickinger said. "If you buy a car, it depreciates immediately."

A group of transportation advocates assembled on a conference call to discuss the report said they hoped it would pressure Congress not to make proposed cutbacks to programs that support increases in public transportation as well as programs that help bring poor people closer to where the better-paying jobs are.

Transportation hasn't kept up with sprawl, "and it has forced a very expensive transportation [system] on our families," Canby said.

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