Ticket to Ride
It is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you build highways, inefficient suburban sprawl will develop and, ultimately, so will traffic and the demand for yet more highways. Build mass transit and you see high-density, efficient housing construction and people living without cars. As the high demand for housing in walkable urban environments like Manhattan and San Francisco demonstrates (and as public opinion polls confirm), plenty of Americans want to live in dense urban communities, and their numbers will only grow as the country's demographics shift toward more childless households--less likely than families with children to want detached suburban houses.
The power to redirect the nation's transportation priorities is not found only in the executive branch. To increase funding for public transportation will require Congressional action. Multiple committees in both houses, with their powerful chairs, will have a hand in crafting the Surface Transportation Reauthorization bill. The bill is doubly important because it controls the federal gas tax, which funds transportation; to increase transit funding, Congress will have to increase that gas tax--a hike that has the added benefit of being a disincentive to driving. George W. Bush refused to increase the gasoline tax to keep pace with inflation. So, adjusted for inflation, transportation has been receiving less funding each year. Ideally, Congress will raise the gasoline tax this year as well as open new revenue streams for transportation, since if you fund mass transit sufficiently, driving will eventually decrease and so will gas tax revenues.
But the meat grinder of competing interests on the Hill makes the outcome far from certain. One potential roadblock is Montana Senator Max Baucus, who chairs the all-powerful Senate Finance Committee. Baucus, a relatively big business-friendly Democrat from a conservative rural state, may be uninterested in raising the gasoline tax to support a more urban-oriented transportation bill.
Public opinion has been shifting toward mass transit, especially with such volatile gas prices. Transit ridership climbed throughout 2008, even though gas prices dropped in the second half of the year. "The public support for greater funds for transit is very clear in the last few elections," declares Parris Glendening, former governor of Maryland, now president of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute. Initiatives to pay for mass-transit investments have been winning victories across the country, from Seattle to Charlotte. California passed a $10 billion high-speed-rail ballot initiative last year.
But public opinion is not the only pressure Congress will feel. There are groups, from the auto companies to the oil companies to the road-builder lobby, that have an interest in continued subsidies for highway construction rather than investment in mass transit. When asked what his group's priorities for transportation funding are, Jeffrey Solsby, a spokesman for the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, ticked off a wish list of road expansion without a single mention of environmental concerns. "We're not in the global warming or environment business," says Solsby. "We're in the road-building and transportation industry."
For the first time, though, there will be a countervailing pressure group. Mass-transit activists have organized a national coalition of environmental, public health, urban planning, architectural and transportation organizations called Transportation for America. Even once unlikely allies such as the National Association of Realtors have joined, since the unmet demand for walkable, transit-oriented living arrangements means that once the transit links get built, there will be money to be made in building and selling condos next to commuter rail stations.
There was once a time when the auto-industrial complex had virtually unchecked power on Capitol Hill. Charles Wilson, Eisenhower's defense secretary, who had previously run General Motors, infamously declared in his confirmation hearing that there could be no situation where he would be forced to make a decision adverse to GM because "what's good for the country is good for General Motors, and vice versa." But this past fall the Big Three automakers faced backlash on the Hill and in the press for their bailout requests. Like their bottom line, their power is clearly on the wane. Last summer profiteering oil corporations had Democrats talking about a windfall-profits tax. If ever there has been a year when the auto-subsidy interests could be defeated, this would be it.
But people like Jerrold Nadler, who have been fighting in vain for years to get more transit funding, know better than to expect that to happen without a struggle. "Am I optimistic?" asks Nadler. "I don't know yet."