Washington buys transit

Our view : When voters support a big tax increase, politicians ought to take notice

November 13, 2008

The good news is that Washington has finally decided to make a major new investment in transit. The bad is that it's metropolitan Seattle, Wash., that's demonstrating leadership in transportation policy and not the federal government.

Despite the recession, the stock market drop, the credit crunch, rising unemployment and, closest to home, the recent Boeing strike, voters in the three counties around Seattle overwhelmingly approved a $22 billion investment in light rail, commuter trains and buses last week.

That's a remarkable act, but it wasn't altruism. Voters decided that a half-cent increase in the sales tax was a reasonable sacrifice to make transit a more viable alternative to highway driving. Notably, voters rejected a similar proposal last year that would have included money for more roads.

Seattle wasn't alone. Voters in California passed a $10 billion bond for high-speed rail. In Los Angeles, an extra half-penny on the sales tax will generate $40 billion for a variety of transportation projects, including badly needed subway and commuter rail expansions. Voters in Hawaii and Rhode Island gave the go-ahead for transit investment as well.

No doubt Baltimoreans would be willing to support a similar investment. Current sub-$2-a-gallon gasoline prices aren't fooling anyone into believing the days of gas-guzzling SUVs are coming back. But voters here won't get the chance: Baltimore transit is a state function, and recent budget woes have forced the Maryland Transit Administration to make cutbacks.

But at least the state is making an effort with new light rail lines planned in the Baltimore and D.C. suburbs. Washington has failed to recognize the scale and urgency of the needs as applications for the limited pool of federal transit dollars are lining up like MARC passengers at rush hour.

The case for transit is clear: climate change, high energy prices, urban gridlock and now the need to stimulate the economy with new investment in infrastructure. What more does Washington need to hear? The willingness of voters to raise their taxes in the midst of such economic uncertainty ought to close the case.

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