Invest in Mass Transit

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

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.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company