Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Public Transit Investment

Reconnecting America recently released new report: "Jumpstarting the Transit Space Race: How the New Administration Could Make America Energy-Independent, Create Jobs and Keep the Economy Strong." Their conclusion:
The next president and Congress could enact a public works project similar to
the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 in order to build
the transit projects lined up and waiting in the federal funding queue. A public
works project of this magnitude would help make this country energy independent
and more financially secure and create jobs. At the same time it would help
Americans avoid high gas prices and find places to live where commutes are
shorter and less expensive. Given today’s economic crisis, these investments are

There's a wealth of great details in the report. For example, the American Public Transportation Association analyzed how much people could save by using public transit instead of driving--an astonishing average of $9,499 per year! The upshot is simple: investing in more public transit would not only help the energy security and independence of the United States and reduce the carbon emissions that exacerbate climate change, it could save us money. Says Shelley Poticha, CEO of Reconnecting America: “Americans are running on empty. This surge of interest in transit has opened a window of opportunity for the federal government to make an investment in transit that would also address the major challenges facing this country.”

Our spending priorities were established back in the 1950's when gas was a nickel a gallon, and these priorities are clearly better suited to that bygone era than they are today. Federal transportation spending requires a "local match" of funding for projects, but that matching requirement is much less demanding for road construction than for public transit projects. Want to build more roads? The Feds will pay 80% or more. Want to add buses or extend rail lines? Don't expect help for more than half the cost.

This is nuts no matter how you look at it (unless you're an asphalt company I suppose) and seems especially nonsensical in light of the public's growing attitudes about transportation funding and policy:
The enormous interest in bus and rail transit is prompted, of course, by
rising gas prices as well as the fact that building more roads hasn’t solved the
problem of traffic congestion — the result of 60 years of sprawling growth that
have made driving a necessity. Ridership figures are up 32 percent over 1995,
more than double the rate of population growth, and greater than the 24 percent
increase in miles traveled by automobile. Auto use actually declined by 3
percent in the second quarter of 2008, while transit ridership increased 5.2

Voters approved 70 percent of transportation-funding ballot measures between 2000 and 2005, indicating huge public support for transit construction. Public
opinion polls, too, have found overwhelming support for transit. A recent poll
commissioned by the National Association of Realtors, for example, found that
only 23 percent of Americans believed building more roads is a good way to
combat traffic congestion, while 75 percent believed that improving public
transportation and being smarter about development was a better idea. An August
2008 AARP poll found that while many Americans over the age of 50 want to drive
less because of gas prices, they cannot because of inadequate public transit,
sidewalks and bike lanes.

Some politicians get it:
“This is going to be the public transportation century in America,” Congressman James Oberstar (D-MN), chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, announced earlier this year. “We’re loving our transit systems to death today,” Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) told the U.S. House in a debate early this summer, noting that the increased ridership and higher fuel costs are straining the budgets of transit agencies. Congress is considering providing $1.7 billion to help transit agencies cover these increased costs, and is discussing providing an additional $10 billion to expand transit service.

Good sentiments, but the Interstate Highway system cost $25B in 1950's dollars. To truly replicate that kind of effort today would entail a much larger investment. Such a Green New Deal with a significant transportation component would have a powerfully positive effect on our economy and way of life, just as building a national highway network did in its time.

Here in the Seattle area we will vote next week on Proposition 1, which proposes further expansion of our fledgling light rail system, bus routes and schedules. I am troubled by the means of financing--another increase in the sales tax, this time of 0.5%, which will boost our overall sales tax to almost 10%. I dislike the regressive nature of sales taxes, but I'm not one to browbeat our leaders about how government should do more of this, that and the other thing, but no way will I accept higher taxes to pay for it. (We've been spending beyond our taxation revenue nationally for 8 years and look where that's gotten us.) I believe in public transit, and I'm going to hold my nose on the financing aspect and vote for it; if you live here I hope you vote for it too. Even with the sales tax increase, it's a better deal than any other solution, and will have real benefits unlike the latest gimmicky balderdash of I-985, whose principal purpose is to provide a means of self-aggrandizement and personal enrichment for a so-called watch salesman from Mukilteo. Even the Bush administration won't support this turkey.

Public opinion appears at last to be emerging from the torpor of cheap gas and the miasma of "pave, baby, pave" spin to a more realistic and clear-eyed vision of what our future can and should be.

Vote yes on Proposition 1 and no on I-985.
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