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A Better Way to Go: Meeting America’s 21st Century Transportation Challenges with Modern Public Transit

Report details why US should shift from investments in expanded highway infrastructure and toward investments in clean, efficient modes of transportation, with transit at the core

Executive Summary

America’s automobile-centered transportation system was a key component of the nation’s econom­ic prosperity during the 20th century. But our transportation system is increasingly out of step with the challenges of the 21st century. Rising fuel prices, growing traf­fic congestion, and the need to address critical challenges such as global warm­ing and America’s addiction to imported oil all point toward the need for a new transportation future.

Rail, rapid buses and other forms of transit must play a more prominent role in America’s future transportation system. Clean, efficient transit service already saves billions of gallons of oil each year, reduces traffic congestion in our cities, and curbs emissions of pollut­ants that cause global warming. Transit also generates a host of other economic and quality-of-life benefits for our com­munities—indeed, every dollar we invest in transit generates approximately two dollars in these benefits.

Every American can benefit if we ex­pand the reach and improve the quality of transit in the United States. By making a bold, national commitment to expand and improve transit, the United States can address many of our greatest chal­lenges and create a transportation system built for the needs of the 21st century.

America’s transportation system is in trouble.

America has grown more dependent on car travel with each passing year. America has more cars per capita than any other nation in the world. The number of miles driven on America’s highways has doubled in the last quarter-century, and our reliance on cars for transportation is at the root of many of America’s most intractable problems.

  • Oil dependence—Two out of every three barrels of oil the United States consumes each year are used to fuel our transportation system. Personal cars and trucks account for 40 percent of our oil consumption. The United States remains by far the world’s largest consumer of oil, leaving our economy vulnerable to oil price spikes and our national security vulnerable to dependence on unstable nations for critical energy supplies.
  • Traffic congestion—Gridlock on America’s highways gets worse with each passing year. The average Ameri­can living in an urban area spent 38 hours—nearly a full work week— stuck in traffic delays in 2005, twice as much time as in 1982. Traffic congestion costs America’s economy approximately $78 billion and results in 4.2 billion lost hours each year.
  • Global warming – America’s trans­portation system produces more carbon dioxide—the leading global warming pollutant—than the entire economy of any other nation in the world, except China. America must reduce emissions from its transporta­tion system if the world is to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of global warming.

Other problems caused by our cur­rent transportation system include:

  • The extraordinary expense of build­ing and maintaining highways, which requires more than $150 billion in government expenditures each year, and the cost of owning and operating private vehicles, which costs American households $900 billion annually.
  • Damage to the environment from air pollution, water pollution, and frag­mentation of wildlife habitat.
  • Damage to public health from air pol­lution, traffic accidents and sedentary, car-dependent lifestyles. Traffic ac­cidents alone claim more than 40,000 American lives each year, more Ameri­can lives than were lost in the Korean War.
  • Isolation for the growing elderly population in areas not well served by transit, as well as the disabled, children and others who cannot operate or af­ford to own vehicles.
  • Encouragement of sprawling de­velopment patterns that consume open space and increase the cost of providing public infrastructure and services.

Transit already plays a key role in addressing the serious problems facing America.

  • In 2006, transit saved an estimated 3.4 billion gallons of gasoline in the United States—enough to fuel 5.8 million cars for a year. In monetary terms, transit saved more than $9 bil­lion that would otherwise have been spent on gasoline.
  • In 2005, transit prevented 540.8 mil­lion hours of traffic delay, according to the Texas Transportation Institute, equivalent to more than 61,700 people sitting in traffic for an entire year. The monetary value of those savings was $10.2 billion.
  • Transit reduced global warming emis­sions by nearly 26 million metric tons in 2006. In New York state alone, tran­sit avoided 11.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution—more than was produced by the entire economies of Rhode Island, Vermont or the Dis­trict of Columbia.
  • Transit also delivers a range of other benefits, including opportunities for economic development, mobility for those without access to cars, public health benefits, and reduced house­hold expenditures on vehicles and fuel.

States and communities that in­vest more in transit enjoy greater benefits.

  • The 14 cities that have built wholly new light rail transit systems since 1980 saved more than 200 million gal­lons of gasoline through those services in 2006. These cities span the nation, from Baltimore to Sacramento and from Dallas to Minneapolis-St. Paul, showing that rail transit can work in a variety of cities.
  • Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia reduced their oil con­sumption with transit in 2006. States that have invested aggressively reaped greater benefits. The 10 states that made the greatest financial invest­ments in transit in 2004 accounted for 85 percent of the oil savings delivered by transit service in 2006.

For every dollar invested in transit, America receives nearly two dollars in economic benefits.

  • In 2005, federal, state and local governments spent $30.9 billion to provide transit services (not includ­ing fares). These investments yielded at least $60 billion per year in ben­efits from reduced vehicle expenses, avoided congestion, global warming emission reductions, reduced road expenditures, reduced spending on parking, and avoided traffic accidents. In other words, investment in transit more than pays for itself.
  • Transit investments are potent job-cre­ators. Investments in transit produce 19 percent more jobs than equivalent investment in new road and bridge projects.

Americans support expanded tran­sit and desire more transportation alternatives.

  • Transit ridership increased by 30 per­cent between 1995 and 2006, reach­ing the highest ridership level since the late 1950s. Since 1995, public transportation ridership has been process for securing funding for new increasing at a faster rate than vehicle transit lines is far more onerous and travel.
  • Approximately three out of four Americans now believe that improving transit and building communities that require less driving are the best solutions for reducing traffic congestion. Many cities nationwide are considering new or expanded commuter rail or light rail networks.

Despite transit’s many benefits, America has historically underinvested in transit.

  • Highways have received the vast bulk of public investment over the last half century. Since 1956, federal, state and local governments have invested nine times more capital funding in highway subsidies than in transit.
  • While the federal government invests more in transit than in the past, the process for securing funding for new transit lines is far more onerous and less certain than for highway projects, with the federal government generally picking up a smaller share of the tab for new transit lines than for new highway projects.
  • State funding is even more out of line with 21st century transportation priorities. In 2004, state governments spent nearly 13 times more public funds on highways than on transit.
  • A lack of federal and state investment has left local governments to pick up the tab for transit investments—with voters approving approximately 70 percent of transportation referendums appearing on ballots between 2000 and 2005. But an overreliance on local funding can make financing projects more difficult. It also allows people living outside of the local area to benefit from transit without paying their fair share of the costs.

America must move toward a new transportation future for the 21st century, with clean, efficient pub­lic transit at its core. To get there, America needs to make transit a na­tional priority, articulate a roadmap for the future of transit, and commit the resources necessary to build a 21st century transportation system.

The vision: Transit as a national priority. Policy-makers at the state and federal level must realize that transit doesn’t benefit only those who ride it. Transit benefits all Americans through im­proved energy security, reduced pollution and reduced traffic congestion, among other benefits.

The plan: A roadmap for transit. Policy-makers must develop and ar­ticulate a bold plan for the expansion of transit in the 21st century. That plan could include a commitment to:

  • Build or expand rapid transit networks in every American city with a met­ropolitan population of 1 million or more by 2020. Twenty-eight of Amer­ica’s 50 largest metropolitan areas have some form of rapid transit service in operation or under construction.
  • Expand transit options in small and medium-sized cities, as well as in rural areas.
  • Link cities via high-speed rail. The United States should commit to building high-speed rail along the 11 federally designated high speed corri­dors and increasing regional rail links elsewhere.
  • Improve the transit experience through upgraded amenities on trains and buses, including on-board wireless In­ternet service; technology to provide real-time information about pickup times; giving transit vehicles priority in mixed traffic and creating more dedicated lanes for transit vehicles; and providing on-time service and clean, comfortable vehicles.
  • Serve suburban users through in­frastructure investments—such as ring lines and commuter rail exten­sions—as well as through flexible transit services such as vanpools and community shuttles.
  • Serve the transportation disadvantaged through affordable and convenient bus and demand-response services.
  • Keep fares affordable, match transit investments with appropriate land-use planning, and promote other transportation alternatives, such as bicycling, walking, carpooling and telecommuting.

The resources: Pay for a 21st cen­tury transportation system by more efficiently allocating costs. Federal and state governments should dedicate a greater share of transportation funding to transit. States with anachronistic pro­hibitions on the use of fuel tax revenue for transit should remove those restrictions. In addition, governments should identify a portfolio of funding sources—including highway taxes and user fees, and general state and local taxes—to fairly allocate the costs of transit system expansion among those who will reap the benefits.