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Passengers board Metrolink subway trains during rush hour in Los Angeles.

The Future of Transit

Public transportation needs massive investment. Will the Obama administration step up?

BY Adam Doster and Kate Sheppard

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‘The public sees infrastructure as clean water, they see it as school buildings, they see it as bike paths and airports and railways. They do not see it as repairing highways.’

More than 2.5 million people live in the Baltimore Metropolitan Area and most never step foot on public transit. The city’s bus system is slow and inefficient, and the region supports only two rail lines, a 15.5-mile light rail route that traverses the city from

north to south and a heavy rail metro track that runs from the city center to the northwestern suburbs. Both lines serve only a combined 80,000 riders daily. Baltimoreans may not prefer driving, but they have little choice.

That’s why local mass transit advocates were thrilled in 2002 when a state advisory committee unveiled the Baltimore Region Rail System Plan, an ambitious proposal that called for the construction of six lines extending more than 109 miles. First on tap was the Red Line, a $1 billion high-capacity east-west rail corridor that would connect with the existing train routes and serve 250,000 people who reside in some of the city’s most densely populated but underserved neighborhoods.

“There could be massive economic reinvestment in those areas, which is badly needed,” says Stuart Sirota, a regional planner who helped develop the 2002 plan.

But the project has languished since its inception, stuck under multiyear environmental studies (standard practice for new infrastructure projects), a Republican governor unfriendly to transit expansion and a dearth of federal funds.

By contrast, during the same period, Maryland moved ahead with an equally expensive plan to widen a 10-mile section of I-95, the major interstate that runs along the East Coast. Classified as an upgrade of existing infrastructure, the highway lobby fast-tracked the project–first proposed in 2002–through the environmental regulatory process. Today, it’s fully funded and well under construction.

“Transit has been the poor stepchild of highways,” says Sirota. “That’s been the status quo over the last 40-plus years, and our region isn’t any different.”

The United States is a nation of cars. For more than 60 years, federal zoning, housing and transportation policies–including President Eisenhower’s monumental 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act–have diffused the population and established the automobile as the primary means of travel.

Prioritizing highway construction over mass transit was justifiable following WWII, when gas was cheap and abundant, climate change was not yet understood and cities were struggling to handle population growth. Today, it is a recipe for economic and environmental disaster.

Yet the federal government remains in a time warp, prioritizing highway funding even as Americans ditch their cars for seats on trains and buses. This year presents two enormous opportunities to alter the equation: First, the economic recovery package, which will include billions on transit infrastructure, and second, the reauthorization of the surface transportation bill, which could redistribute federal funds.

If bureaucratic inertia and a lack of political imagination don’t squash substantive reforms, transportation policy could be fundamentally restructured in 2009. But–especially to judge from the stimulus negotiations–that’s a big “if.”

Failing infrastructure

In August 2005, President Bush signed into law the current transportation bill–the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU)–which will expire Sept. 30, 2009. Infamous for its inclusion of the $200 million “Bridge to Nowhere,” the $244 billion bill also failed to improve funding for mass transit.

Since 1982, transportation funding has broken down this way: 80 percent for roads, 20 percent for mass transit. Nothing changed in 2005, leaving Americans with a national mass transit infrastructure that lacks coherent policy vision and desperately needs major investment.

In its 2009 “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure Future,” the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the United States a “C minus” for its rail network, in part because of the government-owned Amtrak, which the Government Accountability Office recently described as being in “poor financial shape.”

And the problems for rail are only worsening: Because freight and intercity passenger trains often share tracks, expected ridership increases will stress an already maxed-out system. ASCE estimates that more than $200 billion is needed through 2035 to accommodate this growth.

ASCE’s mark on U.S. mass transit was even worse: a “D.” According to the Federal Transit Administration, $15.8 billion is needed annually to maintain conditions of the nation’s transit agencies, while improving to “good” conditions would require an annual $21.6 billion. But in 2008, federal funding for transit totaled just $9.8 billion.

Because funding hasn’t kept pace with need, what resources are devoted to mass transit generally cover maintenance and upkeep–not expansion. When Congress reauthorized SAFETEA-LU in 2005, it earmarked a mere $1.6 billion a year for the construction of new commuter and light rail systems, less than 1 percent of the total amount allocated.

“Expenditures are far outpacing revenues,” says Deron Lovaas, federal transportation policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, “and we’re not making any improvements.”

The pattern creates a staggering backlog. Reconnecting America, which advocates for mass transit, identifies $248 billion in developments that have already been proposed. That’s roughly the same amount promised for highways and transit, combined, in the last federal transportation bill At the current rate of federal investment, it would take 77 years to complete these projects, and that doesn’t include the billions of dollars that cities with older systems require to modernize existing transit routes.

Not surprisingly, half of all Americans still lack any access to mass transit, and only 20 percent live near high-capacity outlets (rail or rapid bus), even though 80 percent of Americans reside in areas defined as metropolises.

Ditch my ride

Despite deteriorating infrastructure, commuters keep jumping aboard. Since 1995, public transit ridership has risen a whopping 32 percent, more than double the rate of population growth.

In 2007, Americans took 10.3 billion trips on public transportation, the highest number in more than 50 years. The trajectory continued in 2008: Subways, buses, commuter rail and light-rail systems saw a 6.5 percent jump in ridership in the year’s third quarter, the largest quarterly upsurge in 25 years.

With transit booming, many Americans are ditching their once-beloved cars. The Federal Highway Administration reports 13 consecutive months of driving decline, with 112 billion less vehicle-miles traveled than in the previous 13-month span.

The high cost of auto transit accounts for some of the behavioral shift. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA), which represents the bus, rapid transit and commuter-rail systems industry, estimates that, by taking transit instead of driving last year, an average household would have saved $9,499, the equivalent of a year’s supply of food.

Concern about climate change is also altering transit dynamics. According to APTA, a commuter traveling 20 miles alone by car each day who switches to public transportation would reduce her carbon dioxide emissions by 4,800 pounds per year.

“Americans are driving so much less,” says Robert Puentes, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “But they sure haven’t stopped traveling.”

Demand for mass transit will only intensify in the future. When Eisenhower launched his grand highway experiment, not only was the U.S. population smaller and younger, but about half of all households were organized as traditional nuclear families–making cars a natural choice upon which to base a transit system.

Not anymore. Today, American households are older (from now until 2030, more people will turn 65 each year than in the previous year), smaller (the share of single person households has edged slightly past the conventional family household) and more attracted to dense, walkable neighborhoods.

“We’re not building for an Ozzie-and-Harriet world anymore,” says David Goldberg, communications director for Transportation For America (T4), a coalition of more than 100 state and 60 national groups advocating transit reform. “For [moving] goods, for people to get to and from work, for the quality of life in these places, there has to be a well-functioning transportation system that offers a wide range of options.”

‘What do we want?’ ‘TRANSIT!’

Republican pollster Frank Luntz recently found that 94 percent of Americans are concerned about the country’s infrastructure and 81 percent would be willing to pay 1 percent more on their taxes if the money were to go toward infrastructure. They ranked energy infrastructure as their top priority, but 18 percent listed mass transit as the infrastructure most in need of investment, while passenger rail, bike lanes and pedestrian paths also made it into the top desires.

On Election Day, 25 of 33 ballot initiatives to increase local and state taxes for public transportation passed, including an 800-mile high-speed rail line in California that is expected to cost $40 billion by the target completion date in 2030.

“The public sees infrastructure as clean water, they see it as school buildings, they see it as bike paths and airports and railways,” Luntz said on a conference call with reporters in December 2008. “They do not just see it as repairing highways.”

After years of neglect, federal lawmakers are finally taking action. In October, Congress approved a five-year, $13 billion reauthorization of Amtrak, almost double its current federal funding level. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) followed that up by introducing a law to fund high-speed rail lines in several key corridors of the country. And House members extended tax benefits to bikers and re-established a federal interagency Bicycle Task Force to promote coordination on bike issues.

But these piecemeal reforms pale next to the investments made by other countries. China has opened a new subway system in each of the past six years. And France spends 20 times as much per capita on rail as the United States does.

Having outgrown its current transit system, America must reorganize how its people and its goods move in order to ensure prosperity in the future. An October 2008 American Public Transportation Association survey found that 85 percent of public transit systems reported capacity problems and 35 percent were considering service cuts.

The long-term cost of inaction is even greater. In a January 2008 report authorized by Congress, the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission concluded that without bold and well-coordinated surface transportation policies, the nation’s assets will further deteriorate, greenhouse gas emissions will rise and adverse public health effects will proliferate.

“At the moment, the condition of mass transit is perilous,” says T4’s Goldberg. “This is a huge turning point.”

Status quo defenders

The T4 political coalition has grown mightier in recent years. It now includes the American Public Health Association, which sees mass transit and smart-growth as ways to fight health concerns like obesity. And there’s talk that the influential American Association of Retired People might sign on as well, pushed by increasing concern that older Americans need mass transit options.

Another notable addition is the National Association of Realtors, which, in the heady days of the McMansion boom, didn’t register much concern for mass transit. But as real estate values around transit hubs have exploded, so too has the group’s interest.

Defending the status quo will be the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the umbrella group for state departments of transportation. In years past, legislators have relied heavily on what highway-friendly state transit officials say they need in funding.

AASHTO’s highway-heavy stimulus wishlist is a prime example. Florida devoted only 1 percent of its $6.97 billion request to mass transit; Missouri around 5 percent of its $800 million request. Even more progressive transit-policy states, such as California and New York, asked for less than half of their funding to go to transit.

Road builders and others from the concrete lobby, like the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), will also weigh in. AASHTO and ARTBA have sway in Congress, going back to the days when the country’s interstates were a major source of jobs. For 27 years, these groups have preserved their lopsided funding allotment.

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Adam Doster is a senior editor at In These Times and a reporter-blogger for Progress Illinois.
Kate Sheppard is the political reporter for the online environmental magazine, Grist.org. She has also written for The American Prospect, Bitch, The Guardian and MSN.

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