Transit for the growing masses

More money needed for railroad, bus lines

July 18, 2000|By Neal Peirce

WASHINGTON -- Topping a half-decade of constant gains, transit ridership for 1999 surged past 9 billion trips a year, the highest figure since Eisenhower was president.

And that's not all:

Coast to coast, ballot measures to curb sprawl and conserve open spaces won overwhelmingly in 1998 and 1999 referenda.

In the midst of spirited downtown renewal efforts, inner city real estate values have started rising faster than most suburban properties.

Highway congestion has become a front-burner issue, irritating drivers, fueling interest in alternative traffic modes.

Local polling from suburban St. Louis to the Atlanta region shows citizens favoring transit expansion over new road construction.

"For years," notes Roy Kienitz, director of the Washington-based Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP), "highway spending and suburban expansion was what people wanted. But now transit ridership has grown twice as fast as the rate of driving for two years. And not just that -- all these other indicators show a dramatic turnaround in Americans' attitudes."

The big, ugly fly in the ointment, says Mr. Kienitz, is that Washington's starting to backtrack on its own commitment, begun in the 1990s, to create a mixed transportation system with more mobility choices.

Up to 1991, the huge bulk of federal transportation money was limited to new road construction. The 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Act (ISTEA) changed that by allowing states and localities to use major chunks of their federal aid for alternatives -- repair of decaying roads, new rail lines or busways, measures to reduce air pollution and making it easier and safer to bicycle or walk.

The shift worked well, especially in states whose transportation departments were open to new initiatives. "Fix it first" initiatives gained momentum. STPP, an advocacy group for transportation alternatives, reports federal dollars used for road and bridge repair zoomed from $6 billion in 1990 to $16 billion in 1999. Federal aid for bus and train service went from $3 billion in 1990 to $6 billion in 1999.

And there was a huge upsurge in metro areas lining up for federal aid to build new or extended rail and busway transit systems. Among recipients: older cities, including Baltimore and St. Louis, but also an array of Sunbelt metropolises including Dallas, Austin, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, San Diego and Las Vegas. Phoenix, Seattle and Denver will soon join the group.

The rules, however, remain stacked against rails and busways. They rarely get more than 50 percent federal assistance, contrasted to the 80 percent match typical for federally funded road projects. What's more, they're usually forced through the wringer of local referenda, subject to any and all anti-tax crusaders, while roads -- because the gas tax finances them -- are not.

Still, the number of metro regions applying to Washington saying they want, that they're willing to plan, operate and sacrifice local revenues for, rail or busway systems, soared from 20 in 1987 to 191 in 1998 -- an 855 percent increase.

What seems so alarming is that even as Americans make it clear they want more transit choice and better-maintained existing roads, and even as research shows new roadways often just generate more sprawl and congestion, both the federal government and state highways departments are reverting to their old roadway build-build-build mentality.

There are refreshing exceptions. New Jersey's legislature just approved a bill focusing on road repair, mandating pollution-free buses by 2007 and requiring that any new highway be approved by joint legislative resolution.

Maryland has passed a sweeping anti-congestion bill focused on transit, biking, walking and requiring the highway department to show how projects serve Smart Growth.

A $6.8 billion transportation package signed July 6 by California Gov. Gray Davis includes, along with funds to clear highway bottlenecks, major expansions for the Bay area and Sacramento rail systems.

So creating more transportation choices is no mystery. We made a decent start in the '90s; several progressive states are still on track; public opinion's come around.

Now, federal and state officials everywhere need to hurry onboard.

Neal Peirce is a syndicated columnist and his e-mail address is npeirce@citistates.com.

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