Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Are We There Yet? Ticket To Ride

Editor's Note: Transit ridership is growing and communities across the nation have been responding with new transit systems and major expansions, with mayors often leading the way. But as this week's excerpt from Are We There Yet? illustrates, and recent updates to the Transit Space Race underline, federal funding is falling further behind what is necessary.

Interest in transit has boomed during the past two decades, and transit ridership is up 13 percent since 2000. The American Public Transportation Association, in its 2011 analysis of transit use, found that “Americans took 10.4 billion trips on public transportation in 2011, the second highest annual ridership since 1957. Only ridership in 2008, when gas rose to more than $4 a gallon, surpassed last year’s ridership.”

Regions across the country are responding by building new transit systems, often starting with one line that connects the downtown to major destinations. Since 2000, 12 regions have added new fixed-guideway transit lines, and 879 new stations have been built, according to CTOD. Denver, Salt Lake City, Houston, Seattle, Los Angeles, Charlotte, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Portland, St. Louis, and Baltimore are all planning large expansions of their transit networks. Smaller regions — including Detroit, Orlando, Kansas City, San Antonio, Indianapolis, Grand Rapids, and Oklahoma City are planning bus rapid transit lines (BRT) and small streetcar systems. See map at right: Building fixed-guideway transit.

So many fixed-guideway transit projects are proposed — 643 in 106 regions according to Reconnecting America’s 2011 “Transit Space Race” report — that if they are built they could transform the nation’s transportation system into one that is safer and healthier and less reliant on fossil fuels. Moreover, if all the planned projects that have already decided on station locations are built, Reconnecting America’s research shows they would connect workers to 25 percent more jobs.

Despite the upward trends in transit ridership, Congress continues to provide far more funding for roads. Traditionally there’s been an 80/20 split with about 80 percent of federal surface transportation funds going to build and maintain roads and about 20 percent going to public transit.

In the “Transit Space Race” report Reconnecting America was able to find cost estimates for 413 of the 643 proposed projects, which added up to $233 billion. If these projects were funded at the 2011 rate of federal investment in new transit projects — $1.6 billion a year — and included the standard 50 percent match from the federal government, building these projects would take a whopping 73 years, according to the report. This country’s transit investment stands in sharp contrast to China, which is investing 11 times more than that amount in transit, and India, which is investing seven times more.

Mayors As Transit Champions

Mayors — both Republicans and Democrats — have championed transit in cities large and small, including Houston, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Lakewood, Oklahoma City, and Denver. When voters defeated a sales tax for roads and transit in 2007, Greg Nickels, who was then mayor of Seattle, resubmitted it to voters as a transit-only initiative, and won. He then championed a downtown streetcar, with half the money put up by property owners, which has proven so popular that the City Council immediately planned a five-line expansion.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has become a champion both locally and nationally by making the case for transit in a highly publicized campaign on Capitol Hill and with President Obama. Following passage of the Measure R half-cent sales tax that will fund 12 new transit lines in LA over 30 years, Villaraigosa lobbied for a “30-10” plan to get federal low-interest loans and long-term bonds that could be secured by the 30-year sales tax revenue stream and allow the region to frontload the construction program and build all 12 lines in 10 years.

In order to keep the 30-10 program on track — Congress did not include a bond program in the new transportation reauthorization — Los Angeles County officials have decided to ask voters in November 2012 to extend the Measure R sales tax another 30 years, so that the longer revenue stream can be used to secure more upfront financing to build out the system.

Former Santa Monica Mayor Denny Zane, executive director of the business-labor-environmental “Move L.A.” coalition that sponsored the sales tax measure, notes that local transportation sales taxes have become the fastest growing source of revenue for transportation projects, due in part to the fact that voters sense that they can provide due diligence and have more control over local projects funded by local sources; that the funds are raised and spent in the counties that enact them so voters directly experience the benefits; and that most of them expire automatically.

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