By Dave Van Hattum | Thursday, Nov. 20, 2008
On Election Day, many U.S. voters didn't only pick new elected officials. They decided whether to raise their taxes to pay for new rail lines in their cities. In Milwaukee, Albuquerque, Honolulu, Seattle, Los Angeles and several other cities, the answer was a resounding "yes," despite a sinking economy.
With falling home values, unstable gas prices and high unemployment, why would Americans vote in overwhelming numbers for new rail systems in their communities? The answer is simple: Many Americans would like to cut back on their driving, but most places don't have easy access to great transit systems.
Perhaps they heard that neighborhoods with the best access to jobs and transit are holding their home values, while those dependent on long car commutes are hurting for buyers. Perhaps they are concerned about climate change and wanted an energy-efficient alternative to cars. Perhaps they cared enough about our national security to vote in favor of transportation investments that would drastically reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
Or perhaps they voted for rail to fix our economy.
A twofer: new infrastructure, new jobs
America's transportation system is the backbone of our economy, but it is literally crumbling around us. In previous recessions, Congress invested in infrastructure to spur economic recovery. With an economic crisis unheard of since the Great Depression, our new president should move us out of economic peril by investing in 21st century transportation solutions. Cleaner vehicles and fuels should be part of that solution, as should modern, world-class train and bus systems in our cities and towns, high-speed rail that connects urban and rural areas, and streets that support the increasing numbers of people who walk and bike to reach their destinations.
Erasing the enormous backlog of necessary maintenance and rail and rapid bus projects would support millions of new jobs, desperately needed in this economy. Construction of new public transportation systems creates 19 percent more jobs than building new roads, ensuring that Americans can get back to work and start building an energy-efficient transportation future.
Speaking of energy, transportation constitutes a third of our greenhouse-gas emissions nationally, making smart transportation investments even more important. On average, rail transit burns half the energy of cars for each mile a person travels. It saves wear and tear on our roads, which need considerably more maintenance than a rail system. It takes cars off the roads during the busiest times of the day, when cars get their worst fuel mileage and emit the most air pollution. Not only that, but light rail catalyzes new development along the line, creating better conditions for walking or cycling — the cleanest forms of transportation. In any case, a report from the Governor's Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group and a recent University of Minnesota study both concluded that more transit, including rail, is a critical component of reaching statewide greenhouse-gas-reduction goals.
10 billion trips on transit in one year
With 90 percent of Americans wanting communities designed for walking more, driving less, and better access to transit, it's no surprise that a record-shattering 10 billion trips were taken on transit last year — the highest ridership in 49 years, outpacing the growth rate of the population and the growth rate of vehicle miles traveled on our nation's highways in the past decade. In Minnesota, demand on the Hiawatha line is so great that additional rail cars will be added to the line, and one half of the 30,000 daily riders report that without the light rail they would have driven instead.
The key is a balanced transportation system — increased opportunities to walk, bike, or take buses and rail, as well as cleaner cars and fuels — that can kick-start our economy and get Americans working in new, green jobs.
The "Override Six" and the rest of the state Legislature who voted in favor of increased transportation investments were voting to ensure the economic and environmental future of our state. Perhaps Craig Westover and Randall O'Toole ("Dirty little secrets about light rail and a clean environment," Nov. 13) should take a cue from the millions of Americans demanding better rail service, rather than sticking their heads in the ideological sand.
Then again, they could just sit in traffic.
Dave Van Hattum is the policy and advocacy program manager at Transit for Livable Communities.