Screeching to a Halt
WITH SAN Francisco gas stations already charging $4.50 per gallon of regular and other places not far behind, it's little wonder that the demand for mass transit is surging nationwide. Last year, the 10.3 billion trips taken on U.S. public transportation -- trains, subways, buses -- were the most in 50 years, according to the American Public Transportation Association. And ridership continued to jump in the first three months of 2008, particularly on light rail (streetcars and trolleys) and commuter rail lines.
The rush to mass transit is accentuating what has been plain for years -- that America's investment in its public transportation infrastructure is glaringly, perilously inadequate. The gasoline tax, which provides the main source of transportation and transit revenue, has not been increased since 1993. As a funding source it is being dangerously eroded by inflation and Americans' decreased driving mileage.
Anyone who has used public transportation in Western Europe, Australia or Japan is struck by the fact that U.S. transit is decades behind the state of the art. China, too, is investing heavily in building public transportation infrastructure. The fact that the vast bulk of transit ridership in the United States is concentrated in the 50 top metropolitan areas, which together account for almost two-thirds of economic activity in the United States, underscores the critical link between public transportation and American competitiveness. If America continues to neglect transit, it will stunt its own economic prospects.
Washington's inattention to public transportation is bipartisan and longstanding. Congress and the Bush administration have done little to fix it. In the omnibus transportation bill signed in 2005 (covering the period from 2003 to 2008), annual funding for mass transit is targeted at around $10 billion, of which about $7 billion goes to capital infrastructure projects. Add that to state and local funding, and the nation's total capital spending on transit amounts to roughly $13 billion annually. But even by the administration's conservative estimates, the minimum need is closer to $20 billion. And the American Public Transportation Association reckons $45 billion to $60 billion annually would be optimal to replace and modernize aging buses, facilities, subways and rail systems. That's quite a gap.
Meanwhile, the administration has slashed spending on new mass transit projects while toughening approval criteria and insisting that states and localities pony up greater shares of such projects, often up to half. That has slowed the development of projects and, by so doing, has driven up costs. And while the administration is right to push congestion pricing, tolling and public-private partnerships as means to generate additional revenue and projects, they are not substitutes for a robust federal role in building the nation's mass transit capacity.
Last year, a bipartisan commission recommended sharply higher levels of funding for transportation of all kinds, including mass transit. The panel's recommendations included raising the gas tax. Although Transportation Secretary Mary Peters was on the commission, she declined to endorse its findings. Her head-in-the-sand posture neatly captured the administration's abdication of responsibility.