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Week of 10.10.08

Reinventing American Transportation
By Mariia Zimmerman

Mariia Zimmerman is a policy director for Transportation For America, a coalition which aims to create a world-class transportation system in the U.S.

It is a challenging time for most Americans. The stock market is down, way down. Energy costs are up, housing values are down. General anxiety levels are high.

Hanging over it all is a sense that we have come to the end of the road with our over-dependence on oil, which is threatening our national security and the family pocketbook. Somehow we must turn the page to a new era as we revive our economy and improve the quality of life for American households.

This realization is particularly acute in our suburbs. For decades part of their allure for homeowners and businesses was the combined attraction of lower land costs and lower energy costs. That equation is being tested, and increasingly America's suburbs are looking for ways to provide more transit options, develop urban mixed-use centers, and build sidewalks and trails. The reinvention of America's suburbs may be one of the most stunning evolutions of the 21st Century.

"The reinvention of America's suburbs may be one of the most stunning evolutions of the 21st Century."
As a critical first step, we need to make a commitment to building an infrastructure for the future on a scale similar to the one we made to the Interstate Highway system 50 years ago. But this time, we need to focus on completing our transportation system with inter-city trains, world-class public transportation and streets that are safe for walking and biking, as we restore our existing roads and bridges to good repair.

These investments will help stabilize our economy in the short-term as they lay the groundwork for the future, while helping millions of Americans in our daily lives, reducing our national dependence on oil and making for a cleaner, greener and less energy-intensive future.

Today, transportation is the second highest household expense after housing. America has invested in a stunning national highway system, but lags far behind other nations in building transit and high speed rail corridors that could complete our national transportation system.

For some families, long commutes and a lack of affordable or convenient transit mean that they are actually spending more on transportation than housing, particularly in exurban areas where people have relied upon the "drive until you qualify" approach to homeownership. And yet for those who do have transit available, they are saving almost $9,500 per year. Public transportation already saves the U.S. 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline each year.

Providing the transit, walking and biking infrastructure so that more people in our growing nation can live in closer proximity to daily needs and use their cars less could save billions more gallons of oil. It can also restore value to many of our urban neighborhoods: In most regions, homes near jobs and/or transit stations are holding their value, while those with the longest commutes are seeing steep declines and little buyer interest.

"In most regions, homes near jobs and/or transit stations are holding their value, while those with the longest commutes are seeing steep declines and little buyer interest."
America has a long history of visionary transportation investment that has left a sizable imprint on our landscape and world standing. Our canals, railroads, bridges, and highways have shaped settlement patterns and served as the backbone of our economy. While these investments shaped the past, it is time now to ask what kind of investments America needs today when gasoline prices are high, oil dependence is a national threat, climate change is threatening the globe, and families are looking for more affordable and reliable options.

The next president and Congress should endorse a bold program to build modern, world-class train and bus systems in our cities and towns, high-speed rail that connects urban and rural areas, complete streets safe for biking and walking, and to get our highways, bridges and existing transit in tip-top shape.

We can do this by following this five-point plan:

  1. BUILD TO COMPETE. We must catch and pass competitors in China and Europe, by modernizing and expanding our rail and transit networks to connect the metro regions that are the engines of the modern economy and improve freight connections.

  2. INVEST FOR A CLEAN, GREEN RECOVERY. Our nation's clean energy future will require cleaner vehicles and new fuels, but it also must include support for the cleanest forms of transportation - modern public transit, walking and biking - and for energy-efficient, sustainable development.

  3. FIX IT FIRST. Before building new roads that will themselves have to be maintained, we should restore our crumbling highways, bridges and transit systems and protect the investments we have made in existing communities.

  4. DO NO HARM. Although there are many transportation projects in the "pipeline," we must reevaluate them to eliminate wasteful spending on projects with little economic return, especially any that could deepen, rather than relieve, Americans' dependence on oil and gasoline.

  5. SAVE AMERICANS MONEY. We must provide more travel options that will help people to avoid high gas costs and traffic congestion, so that Americans can spend their money and time in economically productive ways. We also can 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.

"Public ridership on transit is at a fifty-year high."
Already, Americans are voting with their feet. Public ridership on transit is at a fifty-year high, and local ballot measures to invest in new transit service are passing overwhelmingly in communities large and small across the country. A growing list of states is trying to fund faster train service between cities as an alternative to air travel. Yet federal support for these kinds of initiatives is lacking, and stuck in 20th century funding silos and bureaucracy.

Only half of Americans have access to any public transportation and most live in places where driving is a must. Even if options do exist, six in 10 public transportation systems are overburdened as people flock to them to avoid high gas prices. Meanwhile, our metro areas are absorbing millions of new residents as our population grows toward 400 million, and they must be prepared to accommodate them while remaining livable.

This time, we can't afford to invest precious transportation dollars as though we are expecting a return to cheap gasoline. We need to invest in a way that reduces our vulnerability to oil shocks and price increases while making our economy stronger, our households wealthier and our climate safer.

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