Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, March 02, 2009

The Future of Transit

Public transportation needs massive investment.

Will the Obama administration step up?

by Adam Doster and Kate Sheppard

In These Times (February 23 2009)

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 forty-plus years, and our region isn't any different".

The United States is a nation of cars. For more than sixty 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 World War Two, 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 September 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: eighty percent for roads, twenty 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 US 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 one 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 twenty percent live near high-capacity outlets (rail or rapid bus), even though eighty 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 fifty 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 thirteen consecutive months of driving decline, with 112 billion less vehicle-miles traveled than in the previous thirteen-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 twenty 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 US 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 sixty 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 one percent more on their taxes if the money were to go toward infrastructure. They ranked energy infrastructure as their top priority, but eighteen 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. Senators John Kerry (Dem - Massachusetts) and Arlen Specter (Rep - Pennsylvania) 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 twenty 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 one percent of its $6.97 billion request to mass transit; Missouri around five 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.

New approaches needed

But even funding for roads is hurting these days. In September 2008, the Federal Highway Trust Fund - which uses the gas tax to fund a majority of road repair projects - went broke, forcing Congress to spend $8 billion to ensure temporary solvency. Yet the fund is expected to run out again later this year, leading even the most conservative transit policymakers to talk about greener options.

Some in Congress are lobbying for a simple gas tax increase to fix the highway-funding problem. But that idea doesn't take into account that gasoline-powered cars are becoming increasingly fuel-efficient, much less that battery, biofuel and plug-in hybrid technologies have begun to permeate the market.

Another idea is for a mileage tax. Several states are now considering it, and Portland, Oregon, already tried it in 2006 and 2007. Cars were equipped with a mileage counter, and when they filled up at fuel stations, they were levied a tax for the number of miles they had traveled, rather than charged a gas tax at the pump. It was fairly popular with testers - 91 percent of participants liked it more than the gas tax, according to survey by the Oregon Department of Transportation - but the program is not ready to scale nationally.

But to reshape policy, NRDC's Lovaas says one method could be to specify that money meant for highway and bridge projects be used only for repair and maintenance. Another policy proposal would include language specifying that repair projects be giving priority over new road construction when funding is distributed.

Others are focusing on the percentages: While transit advocates would ideally like a fifty-fifty split between roads and mass transit funding, T4 is lobbying for a sixty-forty split, which would still increase funding for mass transit from its current level.

Transit advocates will likely differ over just how far to go in advocating for a better apportionment. Friends of the Earth (FOE) launched a "no new roads" campaign around the stimulus plan, calling instead for cleaner alternatives.

But others, like the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), don't necessarily oppose new roads. They only oppose roads and projects that don't address congestion, sprawl and inaccessibility.

"In the past, the environmental movement and the smart growth movement have sort of just juxtaposed roads to mass transit", says CNU President and former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist. He argues that road funding should instead be based on whether it creates a network of accessible, user-friendly streets for pedestrians, mass transit and cars.

A less-than-stimulating start

Meanwhile, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair James Oberstar (Dem - Minnesota) - who will likely have plenty of say in what the House transit package looks like - has sent signals that he'll fight for something tougher than previous transportation bills. His original stimulus proposal called for $85 billion for infrastructure investments, with more than half going to energy and environmental projects and at least $17 billion to mass transit. Of that, $12 billion would go to public transit, and $5 billion for rail. Another $30 billion would go to highways and bridges. Oberstar noted that his plan "creates green-collar jobs and invests in projects that decrease our dependence on foreign oil and address global climate change".

However, when the stimulus proposal came out in mid-January, the road money stayed the same but the transportation portion had been reduced by 25 percent. As for rail - for which Oberstar wanted $5 billion - its funding was reduced to $1.1 billion. Transit advocates were able to tack $3 billion more onto the stimulus through an amendment, but the total was still short of what Oberstar originally called for.

"How those decisions were made, I don't know", says Jim Berard, communications director for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "It's disappointing that our recommendation was not accepted on the whole, but at the same time we got a good deal for transportation infrastructure and we want to keep the momentum going for this bill".

The Senate Appropriations Committee's draft stimulus was even more meager than the House version, providing just $9.5 billion for transit. The chamber then rejected an amendment offered by Senators Patty Murray (Dem - Washington) and Dianne Feinstein (Dem - California) to increase transportation funding by $18 billion - $5 billion for mass transit and $13 billion for highways - by a mere two votes. Instead, lawmakers tacked on an additional $11.5 billion in tax rebates for car purchases, forcing struggling local transit agencies to shore up their riddled budgets in-house.

And as In These Times went to press, Senator Barbara Boxer (Dem - California), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, was reportedly co-sponsoring an amendment with notorious climate change skeptic Senator James Inhofe (Rep - Oklahoma) that would throw an additional $50 billion at roads and highways. As Boxer's committee will be responsible for the reauthorization of the transporation bill, the amendment doesn't bode well.

"It shows that there's absolutely no new thinking coming out of that committee on the role that transportation needs to play in achieving global warming goals", says FOE's Transportaion Coordinator Colin Peppard. "We need better leadership from the committee that's going to be drafting this bill".

Those who favor spending on roads argue that they provide a more immediate stimulus because they're "shovel-ready". But at least $50 billion worth of backlogged repairs are needed for public transit systems, compared to $8.5 billion needed to maintain current road. Yet the stimulus draft gave billions more to roads - meaning much would likely be spent on expanding or building new roads.

Meanwhile, despite the fact that Amtrak's northeast corridor alone needs more than $10 billion in repairs, the draft allocated only $1.1 billion for improving all of Amtrak. Yet even this pittance was deemed too generous by Senators Ben Nelson (Dem - Nebraska) and Susan Collins (Rep - Maine), who, as In These Times went to press, had proposed slashing it by $850 million.

Berard, however, remains bullish about the coming congressional session. "There will be other times down the road to advocate for more transit funding", he says. "We will be taking a very close look at how to get more for transit in that as well".

Though unable to give a sense of dollar figures or percentages, Berard says the preliminary work on the legislation is underway, and legislators plan to move a bill through the House by the end of June.

Up in LaHood

One of the biggest wild cards on transportation policy is going to be Obama's pick to head the Department of Transportation, the former representative from Illinois, Ray LaHood. The seven-term Republican, who retired this year, served on the House Transportation Committee, though never in a leadership position.

In the past few years, he broke from his party when it came to Amtrak. In 2005, he noted in the Peoria Journal-Star that "we've got a good Amtrak system in Illinois and I don't think we want to destroy it by talking about privatization". Last June, he voted for the Saving Energy Through Public Transportation Act, which aimed to promote increased public transportation use. LaHood was also a member of the Congressional Bike Caucus, a group of representatives who work to improve bike infrastructure.

But many believe LaHood's nomination was based more on politics than expertise. The Department of Transportation was also the cabinet post where Bush made his token appointment of a Democrat in 2001, and Obama had promised a bipartisan administration.

Environmental groups are giving LaHood the benefit of the doubt.

"While his overall record on energy and environment issues is poor", says FOE President Brent Blackwelder, "there are reasons to hope he may be open to the visionary transportation policy that is needed to move our country forward".

Another major factor will be Carol Browner. Her role as Obama's chief energy and climate adviser - a new position that didn't require Senate confirmation - will likely take some time to flesh out. It seems likely that, given Obama's emphasis on a comprehensive climate plan and Browner's experience as the Environmental Protection Agency administrator during the Clinton administration, she'll also play a key role in transportation policy.

Similarly, the White House's focus on climate policy may mean that Obama himself weighs in more on this year's transit bill than did previous presidents. And Vice President Joe Biden, who as a senator famously commuted to and from the Capitol via Amtrak, is no shrinking violet on public transit issues, either.

Whether mass transit receives the attention it deserves is a question of political will. In regions across the country, legislators are adjusting to the new demands of commuters. Even in Baltimore, where foot dragging has kept the Red Line shelved for years, progress is being made.

In September, the Maryland Transportation Agency released its preliminary Environmental Impact Statement, the first significant step toward applying for federal funding. And new Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon is making sure the city is a key partner in any state negotiations.

Federal lawmakers must now find a way to support more projects like Baltimore's and, in doing so, devise a new vision for America's transit system. This year is the perfect opportunity to start.

Authors' post-stimulus addendum: Transit advocates pushed hard to improve the grim first draft of the stimulus proposal - and their effort paid off. About $17 billion dollars were devoted to mass transit in the $787 billion bill President Obama signed in mid-February, roughly the same number Representative Oberstar called for in his initial committee recommendations. Not only did Senator Boxer's road amendment die in committee and Senator Nelson's proposed cuts lose out in the face of intense opposition, but local transit agencies will get a boost through an $8.4 billion increase in transit capital assistance grants. The package also includes a hefty $8 billion for high-speed rail, funding that Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel reportedly added in the final bargaining sessions.

While the resources won't begin to address the enormous investment needs and came at the expense of other stimulative programs - school construction funds and aid to state governments, most notably - it's a reassuring sign that Democrats understand the need to chart a new path during this summer's transportation negotiations.


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, She has also written for The American Prospect, Bitch, The Guardian and MSN.

Bill Totten


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