July 6, 2002
U.S. said to be wasting billions on transit
Little-used projects take roads money, foes claim
By DANA WILKIE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – When Congress next year considers what to
spend on the nation's railroads and subways, it will encounter
something unusual in a country whose commuters are forever
pestered to leave their cars home.
America, they will hear, is throwing away billions of dollars on
transit projects that few are using, and as a result, the nation's
roads are getting shortchanged, jampacked and dangerous.
In today's mass-transit-sensitized culture, such an argument
might be as politically incorrect as they come. But when U.S.
Census figures recently revealed that the share of commuters
using mass transit has remained flat over the past decade, it gave
road builders and motorist groups ammunition for their
argument that far more of America's taxes are being spent on
public transportation than is warranted.
"The transit community continues to think that the only solution
to traffic congestion is transit, and that if you just double their
money, they'll do much better," said William Fay, president of
the American Highway Users Alliance, an advocate for motorists
"But as the data indicates, that simply isn't true. As fun as these
trains are . . . they aren't really working and they're incredibly
Amy Coggin, spokeswoman for the American Public Transit
Association, said transit only recently got the money it needed
to make rail and subways competitive with the car. She and
others will soon ask Congress to double spending on transit over
the next six years.
"Transit is playing catch-up, and the benefits of investing in
transit over the last six or seven years are only now becoming
evident," Coggin said.
For decades, Americans were urged to use buses and trains to
reduce air pollution and road congestion. During the 1990s, the
federal government put $45 billion into transit and other car
alternatives, compared with $156 billion on highways. California
in the past four years spent $3.4 billion of state and federal
money on transit versus $6.4 billion on highways.
Regardless, more than three-quarters of Americans drove to
work alone in 2000, up slightly from 1990. In California, 72
percent drove solo. In San Diego County, it was 74 percent.
Only about 4.7 percent of workers nationally used transit, as did
3.4 percent in San Diego County – figures that were about the
same in 1990. During that time, the county spent 28 percent of
its transportation money – from all levels of government – on
transit. The remainder went to highways and local roads.
"There's an awful lot of enthusiasm (about transit) that needs to
be better grounded in sound judgment," said Alan Pisarski,
author of "Commuting in America." "Frequently, there's a
tendency for (transportation officials) to fall in love with 'silver
bullets' – monorails, high-speed trains – and they are not as
forced as they should be to do the economic evaluations."
Buses, trains and light rail often take longer than driving,
Pisarski said. Getting to them is not as convenient as hopping in
the car. As people move farther from cities in search of
affordable homes, public transportation either doesn't serve
their new neighborhoods or doesn't serve them well.
An increasing number of working parents use commutes to
swing by the day-care center, the dry cleaner and the drugstore
– a circuitous route that is impractical by public transit.
Next year, when Congress creates a five-year plan for
transportation spending, advocates will argue that federal
spending on transit should go from $7 billion this year to $14
billion by 2009. Most of that money would come from the
Highway Trust Fund, the pot fed by the 18.4 cents a gallon that
every motorist pays at the gas pump. Transit projects now get
20 percent of that pot.
To make that case, they will argue that census figures record
only trips to and from work – not those on weekends, for
instance, or for recreation.
When all trips are considered, they say, transit ridership
increased by 22 percent from 1996 to 2001. California ridership
rose by about 20 percent during the same years.
"We're making good investments, and all over the state, we're
seeing promising signs in transit use," said Jeff Morales, director
of the California Department of Transportation.
He said solo driving has dropped in areas, such as San Francisco,
with convenient and widespread transit. Census figures show
that 68 percent of people in the San Francisco metro area drive
to work alone, down from 73 percent in 1990.
Convincing lawmakers that America is spending too much on
transit will be tricky. Since the 1960s, transportation officials
have argued that if the public invests enough in transit, services
will eventually be good enough to attract many "choice" riders –
the target client who chooses to ride transit even though he or
she has the time and money to drive.
Genevieve Giuliano, director of the Metropolitan Transportation
Research Center at the University of Southern California, said
the relatively low numbers of people using transit during
commutes – a time when buses and trains can best ease
pollution and congestion – do not yet justify transit's high cost.
"There are a lot of people who believe that . . . if we simply stop
building roads and let congestion get really bad, people will say,
'Aha! Maybe transit is not so bad and I'll get off the road,' " she
said. "It hasn't happened yet."