Now is the time for more transit, not less

Why are states passing up billions of dollars in federal transit funds? That seems crazy but it's true.

As reported in The Atlantic magazine:

Money for mass transit is hard to come by, so you'd think when the federal government offers some, states and localities would jump at the chance. A few do, but most don't, according to a GAO report released earlier this month [PDF]. Of the $53 billion in "flexible" transportation funding issued from 2007 to 2011, only about $5 billion was used for urban public transit.

So, state and metropolitan planners simply declined the option to shift a significant chunk of federal dollars intended for highways over to transit projects. Unbelievable. Unfortunate. Unacceptable.

What's the big deal about transit, you may ask? I'll spare you my typical rant and go with something Bill McKibben just wrote in Huffington Post: 

"Think about the transportation sector, which accounts for 27 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from cars and trucks. Tailpipe pollution is also a major source of asthma and other illnesses -- the transport sector contributes 80 percent of the harmful air pollutants that cause 1.3 million premature deaths each year. Road fatalities claim 33,000 lives per year on average, making traffic accidents the number one killer of people under 34 in the U.S. And traffic congestion is known to elevate stress levels and reduce quality of life for millions."

McKibben then lays out a 3-step public transit program to help U.S. communities thrive, protect our climate, and promote human health. He also was nice enought to give a shout-out to NRDC for our recent nationwide public opinion survey demonstrating transit's popularity among Americans, including 59 percent who believe that the U.S. transportation system is "outdated, unreliable and inefficient." Americans also want to be less dependent on cars -- with 55 percent prefering to drive less; but 74 percent saying they have no choice; and 58 percent insisting they would use public transportation more often, but it is not convenient or available from their home or work.

Clearly, transit is a solution to whatever ails us. It creates jobs, drives (no pun intended) economic development, eases congestion, saves oil, reduces pollution, promotes public health, and enhances quality of life in our communities. America needs -- and wants -- more transit, not less.

Fortunately, some leaders at the state level recognize the many benefits of public transortation. Take Governor Rick Snyder (R) of Michigan. The Detroit Free Press just published an excellent profile of the governor, focusing on his love affair with transit. It seems Snyder became a life-long fan after spending a few years commuting to Chicago every day by train during his early career as a business executive. Now, as governor, he's championing state legislation that for the first time in over 40 years would finally create a regional transit authority for southeast Michigan.

"It's a crucial piece of the public transportation pie for metro Detroit, which has struggled to stitch together a cohesive transit system since 1956, when the last of Detroit's streetcars were decommissioned and sold to Mexico City," the article states.

Metro Detroit is the only one of 30 major metro areas in the U.S. that doesn't have a coordinated mass-transit system. So, fostering a cohesive transportation system is step one for the state to be in line to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding to boost transit in the region. The money would go toward a $400-million, bus rapid-transit system and a $25 million light-rail line from downtown Detroit. 

[UPDATE: Transit advocates are celebrating final passage of the bill, which will clear the way for the release of millions in federal funding for a $137 million Woodward Avenue streetcar project. The legislation now heads to Gov. Rick Snyder for his signature. A second bill that allows the authority to accept federal money also is headed to the governor.]

It is surprising to learn that other states are not inclined to capitalize on similar federal funding opportunities for the sake of public transportation. In the case of North Carolina, for example, it's also disappointing. The newly elected Republican governor there, Pat McCrory, formerly served as mayor of the state's largest city. He led the charge to build Charlotte's popular Lynx light rail line back in 2007. Moreover, during his 14 years as mayor, he also advocated bike lanes, tree planting and mandatory sidewalks in front of new homes -- enhancing the quality of life of countless Charloteers.

But these days Gov. McCrory may well be a charlatan when it comes to the core principles of sustainable communities to which he once subscribed. McCrory's politics veered sharply to the right on many issues during the gubernatorial campaign, so much so that he even endorsed a Tea Party- backed measure condemning as “extreme environmentalism” a 20- year-old United Nations statement in favor of urban planning and energy conservation.

Gov. McCrory began his political career by winning a seat on the Charlotte City Council in 1989. After becoming the city's youngest mayor in 1995, he was re-elected seven times. A Bloomberg profile of McCrory noted how back then as a stalwart champion on public transportation:

McCrory’s signature achievement was a 10-mile light-rail line connecting residential areas with the city center, paid for with a half-cent sales tax he helped persuade voters to approve in 1998, against opposition from anti-tax conservatives, said John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, which advocates limited government. McCrory also successfully defended the tax against a ballot repeal in 2007. His willingness to stand up for higher taxes for transportation was one reason Democrats trusted McCrory when he was mayor, said Fitzsimon.   

Reportedly, the Tea Party was skeptical of McCrory because of his support for light rail, which is apparently why he signed on to a resolution condemning Agenda 21, a United Nations sustainable development plan that Tea Party activists say subverts private- property rights. If this new "anti-transit" governor is the real McCrory, that does not bode well for growing metropolitan areas of the state, such as his former hometown of Charlotte.

It just so happens that NRDC's opinion poll delved deeply in a few key counties, including the one where Charlotte is located -- and this is what residents there told us:  

  • 61 percent of respondents in Mecklenburg County said improving public transportation (39 percent) and developing communities where people don’t have to drive as much (22 percent) are the best “long term solutions to reducing traffic” in their area. In contrast, only 25 percent favored building new roads
  • 72% said they have no alternative but to drive while 56 percent regarded the nation’s transportation infrastructure as ``outdated, unreliable and inefficient’’
  • 58% said they would prefer to use public transportation if it were convenient
  • 71% support increased local government spending to expand public transportation options

It is NRDC's hope that North Carolina's new governor will return to his roots and follow the lead of fellow governors like the one in Michigan who fight for more transit funding because that it what their constituents want and also what their states need.

Indeed, the case for more transit is clear. On that note, Reconnecting America today released a new report focusing on cities across the country that are investing in transit improvements to better connect suburbs with city centers, to move people between employment centers, and to improve overall connectivity among key destinations. These new transit investments promise to bring not only improved mobility for local residents, but can also be the catalyst for community revitalization, economic development, and improved connectivity.

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