Time To Prioritize Transit

Investing In Buses And Trains Can Help The Environment - And Consumers' Wallets

August 24, 2009|By David Gardiner

Baltimore commuters have a big stake in the fate of the American Clean Energy Security Act, also known as the Waxman-Markey bill, which passed the U.S. House in June and heads to the Senate this fall.

This landmark legislation is the first attempt of the federal government to drive the United States to a clean-energy economy with lower greenhouse gas emissions, more jobs in new clean energy industries and less dependence on uncertain oil supplies. It will lead to important new investments in energy efficiency to save consumers money, and new forms of generating clean electricity, such as solar and wind.

But the bill is weak in one key area. It does too little to fund public transit.

As the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee takes up this legislation in September, Maryland Sen. Benjamin Cardin deserves applause for leading efforts to make sure that public transit is a key part of solving our climate and energy problems. Transportation produces one-third of greenhouse gas emissions - the pollutants that cause global warming - and it consumes approximately 70 percent of the petroleum used in America.

The House legislation contains funding for many clean energy technologies, but it dedicates less than 1 percent of funds to public transit. While the inclusion of transit in the final version of the bill is a positive step, the small amount of funding it will receive hardly reflects how much transit could reduce energy pollution.

The benefits of public transit are widespread: Mass transit reduces our fuel dependency, lowers greenhouse gas emissions and reduces traffic congestion. Public transportation already saves the equivalent of 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline annually - the equivalent of 900,000 automobile fill-ups every day.

And according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), raising public transportation spending from the current 0.33 percent of GDP to just 1.6 percent would save more than 10 billion additional gallons of oil imports. If America is ever going to be truly independent from foreign oil, then public transit must be part of the solution. That same marginal increase in commitment to transit will also reduce GHG emissions by 142 million tons by 2020 and create 5.3 million jobs. And most jobs affiliated with public transit cannot be outsourced.

By investing in transit, we can provide a cost-effective alternative to driving, especially when gasoline prices rise again, as the International Energy Agency predicts they will. According to APTA, transit riders in Baltimore can save $771 per month by not driving based on the cost of fuel, maintenance, depreciation, insurance and other expenses. We can also better meet the needs of the 36 percent of Baltimore City households - 93,000 households total - that do not own a vehicle, and are therefore transit-dependent.

And the city of Baltimore is already moving in this direction. It established an Office of Sustainability to "green" the city, and a list of shovel-ready public transit projects totaling $18 million (in addition to $48 million for MARC commuter rail) that qualify for stimulus funding was released last December.

There is a huge opportunity before the Senate to take a smart, holistic approach by addressing climate change, transit needs and energy together. Sen. Cardin and his colleagues can add this missing component to the bill approved by the House - a plan to make transit a cornerstone of our energy future.

That plan should include long-term funding as well as a planning requirement that forces communities to reassess their transportation choices in their version of the climate bill. Maryland is moving down that new path, and it's the right thing for the rest of the country, too.

David Gardiner is the former Director of the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton. He is currently the president of the consulting firm David Gardiner & Associates, which guides organizations and businesses in navigating environmental and energy policy. His e-mail is david@dgardiner.com.

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