Tran­sit’s one-way ticket

Our view: Vot­ers face a stark choice on sup­port for pub­lic trans­porta­tion

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

The suc­cess this sum­mer of a fledg­ling down­town street­car line in Kansas City has been “eye-pop­ping,” the lo­cal press re­ports, with thou­sands more rid­ers than any­one pre­dicted. Vot­ers love such ur­ban trans­porta­tion projects, too — in 2014, more than two-thirds of tran­sit-fund­ing ref­er­en­dums won ap­proval. Rider­ship on all forms of tran­sit, from buses to sub­way lines, reached a 58-year high last year to a to­tal of 10.8 bil­lion trips na­tion­wide.

Given that level of pub­lic in­ter­est and sup­port, it’s fair to ask any­one run­ning for Congress or the White House this year: What are you go­ing to do about im­prov­ing pub­lic trans­porta­tion? No mat­ter the can­di­date, the an­swer is ac­tu­ally fairly sim­ple to pre­dict as it di­vides pretty neatly be­tween the two ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

It all comes down to a ques­tion of money: Repub­li­cans don’t want to spend a dime of fed­eral tax dol­lars on tran­sit, and Democrats want to spend more than what is pro­vided to­day.

Don’t take our word for it; those po­si­tions are clearly spelled out in the po­lit­i­cal plat­forms ap­proved by the del­e­gates to the Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can na­tional con­ven­tions in July. The GOP plat­form makes the case that tran­sit spend­ing should be re­moved from the fed­eral High­way Trust Fund (about 20 per­cent of the trust fund is spent on tran­sit now), as pub­lic trans­porta­tion is an “in­her­ently lo­cal af­fair that serves only a small por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion.”

And that’s not all. The Repub­li­cans don’t care for in­ter­state tran­sit ei­ther. They call Am­trak an “ex­tremely ex­pen­sive rail­road” un­de­serv­ing of tax­payer sub­sidy. They’d hand over the North­east Cor­ri­dor and other lines to pri­vate in­ter­ests and end fed­eral sup­port for “boon­dog­gles like Cal­i­for­nia’s high-speed train to nowhere.”

In­deed, the GOP plat­form on trans­porta­tion could eas­ily have been writ­ten by high­way con­trac­tors or the oil com­pa­nies. It also pooh-poohs spend­ing on bike-shar­ing, side­walks, recre­ational trails, land­scap­ing, ferry boats and scenic by­ways. Give those Repub­li­can pol­icy writ­ers black­top or give them noth­ing at all.

The Democrats, on the other hand, of­fer sup­port for a broad range of pub­lic in­fras­truc­ture, in­clud­ing high­ways, bridges and tran­sit as part of the party’s job-cre­ation plank and a way to “put mil­lions of Amer­i­cans back to work” and “cre­ate se­cure, good-pay­ing mid­dle class jobs.” The au­thors also boast about the ben­e­fits of “green and re­sil­lient in­fras­truc­ture” and re­duc­ing green­house gas emis­sions.

Too bad the Democrats come up a bit short in sug­gest­ing ways to pay for these up­grades. But then per­haps that’s the na­ture of party plat­forms that fo­cus on what they be­lieve vot­ers want and gloss over the less-pop­u­lar con­se­quences.

Still, that’s light years ahead of the po­si­tion the GOP has staked out on trans­porta­tion. For a party that talks big on en­ergy in­de­pen­dence, it’s dis­ap­point­ing that Repub­li­cans want to put more gas guz­zlers on the road and skimp on fuel-sip­ping tran­sit. It shouldn’t be a par­ti­san is­sue — not when tran­sit rider­ship is grow­ing faster than high­way traf­fic (up 39 per­cent since 1995 com­pared to 25 per­cent for “ve­hi­cle miles trav­eled,” ac­cord­ing to the Amer­i­can Pub­lic Trans­porta­tion As­so­ci­a­tion).

Re­duc­ing air pol­lu­tion, re­viv­ing Amer­i­can cities, cre­at­ing eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties, re­duc­ing traf­fic con­ges­tion — all those ben­e­fits come from greater in­vest­ment in tran­sit. Polls show mil­len­ni­als would much pre­fer to hop a light rail or sub­way train or the like to get to work rather than com­mute by car. Po­lit­i­cal lead­ers who fail to no­tice this 21st cen­tury pref­er­ence could get left in the prover­bial dust.

If high­ways aren’t vi­able without tax­payer sub­sidy, why should we ex­pect other forms of trans­porta­tion to work that way? Even Don­ald Trump has shown greater in­ter­est in rail trans­porta­tion than his own party’s plat­form — he voiced sup­port for high-speed rail a year ago, telling one Bri­tish news­pa­per that if China and other coun­tries could have such trains, the U.S. ought to have them, too. “We will get it go­ing and we will do it prop­erty,” he told the Guardian.

What nei­ther side is say­ing is that the na­tion has an ex­tra­or­di­nary op­por­tu­nity right now to re­duce its de­pen­dence on au­to­mo­biles and costly high­ways. A car­bon tax — or even an up­dated fed­eral gas tax that fac­tors in in­fla­tion — could fi­nance bil­lions in needed in­fras­truc­ture at a time when gaso­line prices are re­mark­ably low. Mil­len­ni­als want tran­sit? They could have it, but only if the na­tion’s lead­ers are will­ing to make that nec­es­sary in­vest­ment now.

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