Push for investment

Oct. 21, 2008
“By reaching across the aisle to implement better transportation investments in our cities and communities and across our states, we'll help meet the unprecedented demand for quality public transportation choices, to maintain our current system, and to ...

By reaching across the aisle to implement better transportation investments in our cities and communities and across our states, we'll help meet the unprecedented demand for quality public transportation choices, to maintain our current system, and to create jobs that put Americans back to work.” Gene Russianoff, attorney and spokesperson with the “Build for America” campaign

It‘s a bold move, calling for billions more in highway funding and other transportation investments even as the federal government commits potentially $1 trillion in taxpayer funds to clean up the economic fallout from Wall Street financial sector meltdown.

Is it the wrong place and time to make this move? Maybe. Yet the groups involved see these investments not only as vital to keeping the U.S. economy rolling, they also believe it‘ll help provide new jobs - something that‘s a concern as unemployment is predicted to reach 7.5% by 2009.

“America‘s transportation system -- the network of highways, railroads, public transportation, walkways and bikeways -- is the backbone of our economy,” says Shelley Poticha, co-chair of the Transportation for America Campaign, known by the acronym T4. “But today that system is broken. The interstates have been built and need upkeep. Bridges are crumbling. Many Americans--young, old, rural--are stranded without transportation choices that are affordable, efficient, and convenient.”

Poticha says that while Americans are looking to cut back on driving, it‘s difficult when only half of us have access to public transportation and most live in places built for car dependence. “Meanwhile, our metro areas are absorbing millions of new residents as our population grows toward 400 million, and struggling to accommodate them while remaining livable.” Poticha notes. “Now is not the time to squander money on projects or plans that do not help save Americans money, free us from oil dependence and create long-term jobs.”

T4, if you are wondering, defines itself as a “broad coalition” of housing, environmental, public health, urban planning, transportation and other organizations focused on creating a “21st Century national transportation program.” That means building a modernized infrastructure and healthy communities where people can live, work and play by aligning national, state, and local transportation policies with an array of issues like economic opportunity, climate change, energy security, health, housing and community development.

That‘s a mouthful, for sure - and probably a little too starry-eyed to boot. That aside, though, their transportation investment plan for the U.S. - called “Build for America: A Five-Point Plan to Get Our Economy Moving” - contains some thoughtful points well worth considering.

“The U.S. already spends $70 billion a year on transportation infrastructure, and many are calling on Congress to do what has been done in every recent recession and invest still more to simulate economic recovery,” says Poticha. “However, simply using that money to build highway projects conceived in the last century is unlikely to help. Our ‘Build for America‘ blueprint calls for investment in public transit, high-speed and intercity rail, neighborhoods that are less car-dependent, more walkable and more affordable, and restoring the thousands of roads and bridges in failing condition across the U.S.”

The plan centers around the aforementioned five points that, frankly, are very VERY broad in size and scope:

1. BUILD TO COMPETE with China and Europe, by modernizing and expanding our rail and transit networks to reduce oil dependence and connecting the metro regions that are the engines of the modern economy.

2. INVEST FOR A CLEAN, GREEN RECOVERY through cleaner vehicles and new fuels as well as the cleanest forms of transportation - modern public transit, walking and biking - and for energy-efficient, sustainable development.

3. FIX WHAT'S BROKEN before building new roads, and restore our crumbling highways, bridges and transit systems.

4. STOP WASTEFUL SPENDING and re-evaluate projects currently in the pipeline to eliminate those with little economic return that could deepen our oil dependence.

5. SAVE AMERICA MONEY by providing more travel and housing options that are affordable and efficient, while helping people to avoid high gas costs and traffic congestion. Save taxpayer dollars by asking the private developers who reap real estate rewards from new rail stations and transit lines to contribute toward that service.

T4 believes following these five points could reap some big benefits for U.S. citizens in a variety of ways. For example, the groups notes that families living in neighborhoods adjacent to rail transit spend just 9% of their household budget on transportation as compared to 25% for those in automobile dependent areas - meaning a person can achieve an average savings of $9,499 per year by taking public transportation instead of driving.

On the job creation front, T4 points out that road and bridge maintenance and repair create 9% more jobs than construction of new road capacity, according to a 2004 analysis of the U.S. Department of Transportation‘s job-creation model. The same analysis found that construction of new public transportation creates nearly 19% more jobs - a figure does not include the permanent jobs in operating and maintaining the system.

Finally, in 2005 alone, public transportation saved Americans 541 million hours in travel time and 340 million gallons of gas -- resulting in a total savings of $10.2 billion. And if more commuters can be moved off the highways and byways, there will be less congestion for truckers to navigate for freight delivery - saving them fuel, time, and a lot of frustration.

“Already, transportation is the sixth largest federal expenditure, at $70 billion a year,” says T4‘s Poticha. “Today, many are calling for infrastructure investments beyond that to stimulate an economic recovery. Given an economic crisis unheard-of since the New Deal era, those investments may be warranted. However, our nation cannot afford to spend those dollars as we spent them in the 20th century.”

Thing is, though, none of this is cheap. The Federal Highway Administration calcualtes we'll need $512 billion alone over the next few years just to get our highway infrastructure up to snuff -- while the public transportation needs of 78 metro areas across the U.S. total over $200 billion. That's bailout-sized cash -- the kind of cash we certainly don't have, standing as we are in the midst of an $11 trillion federal deficit. Still, there are many good ideas in this plan worth looking long and hard at. We‘ll see if any of them gets some legs in the months ahead.

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr 1 | Senior Editor

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