VOTERS SENT a clear message to Capitol Hill on Election Day: Even when times are hard, they're willing to pay for mass transit. Nationwide, voters approved over 70 percent of major transportation-funding measures, according to the Center for Transportation Excellence. That's double the rate at which ballot initiatives are generally approved, and it is even more impressive because gas prices were already declining. Transit ridership numbers also continue to grow: From July through September, ridership shot up 6.5 percent compared with the same period last year, the largest such jump in a quarter-century. Lawmakers, who might think there is less urgency to update the nation's public transit system because of cheaper gas, should view the results of Nov. 4, and the growth in ridership, as a call to action for mass transit. A good start would be to make infrastructure improvements a key component of any economic stimulus bill.
In September, the House approved a stimulus bill that set aside about $18 billion for transportation improvements. While it would have provided a welcome infusion of transportation dollars, the bill, which died in the Senate, was haphazardly crafted. It sought to jump-start ready-to-go transit projects that cash-strapped states had shelved. In theory, this would help mitigate the effects of a severe recession, particularly in the hard-hit construction industry. But it would not reward the best projects, only the ones that were ready to begin. Lawmakers didn't know what kind of projects they were funding, meaning taxpayers could have ended up footing the bill for boondoggles. The legislation also would have neglected mass-transit projects, which are typically complex and may take longer to complete.
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials now says there are about 5,000 ready-to-go projects, with a total cost of $64 billion. But, again, there is scant detail regarding what kind of projects the taxpayers would be funding. As President-elect Barack Obama noted on Sunday, "We are not going to simply write a bunch of checks and let them be spent without some very clear criteria as to how this money is going to benefit the overall economy and put people back to work." That kind of scrutiny should extend to all aspects of the stimulus, including transportation spending.
Lawmakers should give priority to projects that are environmentally friendly and that encourage smart growth. They also should adjust the federal government's disbursement formula to direct more money to mass transit and to other projects in underserved metropolitan areas.
On Saturday, Mr. Obama said, "We will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s." In transportation, the new administration and Congress should work to strike a balance between ready-to-go projects that can jolt the economy and long-term investment in public transit.
A Pitch for Mass Transit
Unlike President Bush, Barack Obama is going to enter office with a clear appreciation of the urgent problems of climate change and America’s growing dependency on foreign oil — and a strong commitment to address both.
One way he can do this is to give mass transit — trains, buses, commuter rails — the priority it deserves and the full financial and technological help it needs and has long been denied.
Mass transit has always played second fiddle to the automobile, so Mr. Obama will need strong allies. Ray LaHood, Mr. Obama’s choice for transportation secretary, must be not only an ally but a champion for mass transit. Mr. LaHood is a Republican and former member of Congress from rural Illinois, where farmers produce a lot of ethanol and where people mostly drive. His résumé on transportation issues is thin, and we fear he may need some coaxing in this new direction.
Another important ally should be — and almost certainly will be — James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
For years, the division of transportation money in Washington has heavily favored cars and trucks — more than 80 percent of the big transit money from gas taxes goes to highways and bridges, and less than 20 percent to railroads or mass transit. Mr. Oberstar is leading the charge to change that formula and divide this money a little more evenly. This will not be easy. Automobiles will be with us a long time, and old spending habits die hard. But as part of the stimulus package now under discussion for transportation, Mr. Oberstar is proposing $30 billion for highways and bridges and $12 billion for public transit. That is certainly a far healthier mix.
The new administration could further help mass transit by shelving the unfair “cost effectiveness index” that President Bush put in place several years ago for new transit programs. The net effect of this index was to make it easier to build highways and almost impossible to use federal money for buses, streetcars, light rail, trolleys — indeed, any commuter-rail projects.
For Mr. Obama’s transit agenda and for Mr. LaHood, the next big challenge will be a transit bill that Congress must pass by September. Mr. LaHood is widely praised for his management skills and his ability to work well with others. Those abilities will certainly be needed if he and the Congress are to find and then finance the best, the most-efficient and the most-advanced ways for Americans to move around.
A late commuter sprints to catch a train on the underground Metropolitan line in France. Subway systems have a wide variety of names: the Metro in France, the Tube in London, and BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) in San Francisco. Underground rapid transit originated in New York in the early 1900s, and the network continues to grow as cities expand their transportation options.
Public Transportation, transportation service that is available to the general public and that carries passengers to destinations for a fee. Public transportation is also known as mass transportation or mass transit, since many people use it to travel to common destinations. Although many different types of public transportation systems exist, they can be classified into two main types: common carriers and contract carriers.
Common carriers are usually operated by city or regional government agencies and are open to all members of the public willing to pay the posted fare. Common carrier systems include transportation services via subways, buses, streetcars, and light-rail transit. These systems generally run along established routes within a city or metropolitan area, allowing people to travel without using an automobile or other mode of personal transportation.
Contract carriers are privately run operations that people hire for a single trip to a given destination. Examples are taxicabs, rental cars, and chartered buses. Contract carriers, which are more expensive than common carriers, can travel to places where bus or subway service may not reach and can operate at times when common carrier service may not be scheduled.
Rapid transit systems are designed to provide an efficient and convenient mode of public transportation within cities. Most frequently used by commuters unwilling to face city traffic, transit cars move at speeds up to 130 km/hr (80 mph). A given system may transport as many as 40,000 passengers per hour in one direction.
Public transportation is usually found in large cities and in densely populated areas. Large cities maintain public transportation because they often have more traffic congestion and less parking space than smaller towns have. Public transportation helps reduce the number of vehicles on the road and is a convenient option for people traveling relatively short distances. Public transportation systems are more widespread in older cities, because these cities established systems before automobile use was common. Older cities tend to be more densely populated, making public transportation a more attractive option than using personal vehicles. Business districts with high concentrations of employment also use public transportation. New York City, London, and Paris are all older cities with large business districts, and all these cities have extensive public transportation networks. London has the most extensive subway system in the world, with 408 km (254 mi) of track. New York City’s system totals 370 km (230 mi), and the Paris system is 211 km (131 mi) long.
Public transportation provides an efficient and inexpensive means of transportation for millions of people, but it faces strong competition from the automobile, which offers more flexibility for travelers. Public transportation systems outside the United States tend to be more developed, because of the age of the cities, higher population densities, and the greater willingness of governments to spend money on them. Rail systems, in particular, are more popular in Europe and in Asia than in the United States.