On the Right Track

Barack Obama is one of a growing number of U.S. politicians who support increasing the nation’s use of mass transit.
Courtesy Obama for America

Yesterday, President Bush signed into law the first Amtrak five-year reauthorization bill since 2002. The bill had long been delayed, but thanks to the rising price of fuel and record ridership, Republican opposition to the money-losing railroad slackened. The $12 billion set aside in the bill nearly doubles the Amtrak budget. Furthermore, it has provisions for two $1.5 billion grants, one to promote high-speed rail, and the other inter-city rail. (Both could be a big boon for AN’s New York and California readers.)

But the most significant part of the bill may not yet be on the books: Congress’ growing interest in funding mass transit. With the five-year surface transit bill, which funds 95 percent of transportation infrastructure in the country, due up for reauthorization next year, the nation could be looking at a landmark shift in where and how it travels the country.

“We think, and we’re getting reception for this on the Hill, too, that the 1950s highway-based transportation system has run its course,” said Daniel Goldberg, communications director for Transportation for America, a mass-transit and transit oriented development group.

As gas prices skyrocketed over the past year, mass-transit ridership increased by more than 5 percent, a record expansion, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Though oil has tumbled recently, in step with the rest of the economy, politicians and the public are increasingly aware of factors like congestion and the environment that should continue to boost support for mass transit programs at the federal level.

“I think [the Amtrak Bill] indicates a recognition out there between the impact of fuel but also the environment and congestion,” Paul Dean, director of government affairs for the American Public Transportation Association, said. “Especially on short haul trips—under 500 miles—from metropolitan area to metropolitan area, rail and other mass-transit programs can have a huge impact. Just look at how bad the New York airports have gotten. A reliable train network linking the city to others in the region could be a big boon. Plus, there’s no wading through security.”

Though Congress may be more concerned at the moment with the saving Wall Street and Main Street than the streets themselves, transit advocates like House Transportation Committee chair James Oberstar have expressed a commitment to pushing the surface transit bill in new directions. “Chairman Oberstar has said he’s not going to break the mold on this bill, but he’s certainly moving away from past models and trends,” Jim Berard, the committee communications director, said.

Historically, the surface transportation bill splits roughly 80/20 between highways and transit. Berard refused to make specific predictions, but said he would not be surprised to see that ratio shift in favor of more mass transit. “We’re seeing more interest than we ever have before,” he said. Should Democrats secure greater control of both houses, as has been predicted, it will only boost these efforts. But, Berard added, “the timing really couldn’t be worse.”

The vast majority of funding for surface transportation comes from the highway trust fund, which is funded entirely by the federal gas tax. It follows that if Americans continue to moderate their driving, there will be less money to pay for the transit expansion just at the same time demand is rising for it. (Some hope could come from the sale of carbon credits under a cap-and-trade system, but that remains years, or at least an election, away.)

Another pothole is all the potholes. The nation’s physical infrastructure is crumbling, made fatally clear by last year’s devastating bridge collapse in Minneapolis. With both transit and infrastructure programs drawing from the same trust fund, it could create a shortage for both.

But the crisis has already presented a new opportunity. “It’s become the accepted wisdom that part of the solution is public transit spending,” Dean said. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested as much in recent stimulus package (first item), and Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama is a longstanding advocate of rail programs and infrastructure investment; he has reiterated his commitment to linking the two in stump speeches and bebates. “Overall,” Dean said, “our support on the Hill is at an all-time high.”

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