By Zane Ewton
As the next re-authorization of the Highway Bill approaches, rising fuel costs and environmental concerns have propelled public transit into the spotlight, and give agencies that struggled in 2008 to balance inflated gas prices with record ridership levels a compelling case to argue for increased funding from a new Federal administration.
President-elect Barack Obama has set infrastructure investment as a top priority to help stabilize the economy. He is discussing a possible $300 billion economic stimulus package that would include a large portion for infrastructure projects such as road and bridges, public transit and renewable energy projects.
Though the public applauds transit agencies and bus manufacturers for their efforts to present a reliable transportation service that also is friendly to the environment, it has been the high gas prices over the last year that have driven passengers to public transit in record numbers.
Buses have never run cleaner. But as much as the environment is a concern, the public appears to be getting out of their cars and onto buses only when mass transit clearly demonstrates it is more economic and efficient than driving a private vehicle.
Speaking over lunch at APTA Expo 2008, APTA president William W. Millar said the real question is if transit agencies can keep riders on board as gas prices fall.
Major metropolitan cities with established infrastructure have been able to hold on to the increased ridership. Washington Metro, Washington, D.C. saw a five percent boost in ridership over the summer months when gas was at its highest, and has been able to sustain the five percent increase as gas prices dropped toward the end of 2008.
I live 14.7 miles from the BUSRide offices in Phoenix, AZ. My morning commute is typically 30 minutes and my car averages 33 miles per gallon. The same trip on a Valley Metro bus requires two transfers and takes just over two hours. With a 3-year-old at home and a working spouse, four hours of transit time a day is not acceptable.
Phoenix lacks the infrastructure of cities such as Washington D.C. or New York City. Here the typical suburban home can be over an hour drive from downtown, double that during rush hour. Public transit is not even available in many communities, while the time commitment is too much for others.
Infrastructure investment is crucial for expanding communities that need public transportation now.
The first step, according to Millar is to refine the New Starts project; a development process inserts the Federal government in every important decision for a transit agency. The process places demands on all plans, alternative plans and extra measures. The final step calculates the cost effectiveness to determine if the project is even qualified for Federal funding.
“We believe this is a Federal process gone amok,” says Millar. “APTA has called for a major overhaul and simplification of the New Starts process. It is unfair that public transit projects are put into a process that takes years whereas Federal highway projects breeze through a process that is much simpler and easier to navigate.”
According to Beverly Scott, APTA chair and general manager of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, Atlanta, GA, transit infrastructure investment cannot be done on the cheap. She says the way a community moves people and commerce is critical to competitiveness and overall quality of life.
“We need to raise the dialogue and the importance of public transit for this country,” says Scott. “One of the pillars that established America as a great country was our transportation infrastructure. But as a country, we have not been keeping up. We can’t keep doing it the way we have been doing it.”
Millar believes the wild card in transit ridership, as well as in infrastructure investment, is the economy.
“It is well known that if you build a canal, the communities along that canal do better,” says Millar. “If you build a railroad, the communities along the railroad do better. We know that transportation has an economic impact.”
As much as the Obama Administration understands the importance of mass transit, it is up to the industry to keep the issues on the table and take action in D.C.