By MARSHA MERCER
Public transit, ignored by riders in 2009 and 2010, is suddenly hot.
With gasoline at the pump averaging $3.567 a gallon – up 77 cents from a year ago -- and rising, many motorists are parking their cars and flocking to public transportation. From Pompano Beach, Fla., to Oakland, Calif., ridership rose by double-digits last month alone, according to a survey by the American Public Transportation Association.
It’s refreshing to see people transform the pain of higher gas prices into a positive trend. Taking the bus or subway, trolley or train reduces dependence on foreign oil, keeps the air cleaner and helps people get where they’re going with a little less stress. Walking to catch the ride can boost health.
Whether this “power to the people” moment represents lasting change or is just a blip depends on whether Washington’s politicians can rise above gridlock.
Transit officials around the country are worried that too much of a good thing could overwhelm their systems. If gas hits $4 a gallon nationally, as many predict, it could mean 670 million additional passenger trips a year, according to the public transportation association. Five-dollar-a-gallon gas could translate into 1.5 billion more passenger trips a year, and if, heaven help us, gas surges to $6 a gallon, there could be an additional 2.7 billion passenger trips a year.
But when representatives of more than 30 transit systems visited Congress this week to plead for funds to build more rail lines, buy larger buses, expand schedules and enlarge routes, they got bad news. Money? What money? The country’s in a budget crunch.
“I think it’s going to have to stay about the same,” Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation Committee, told the Wall Street Journal in an interview. Mica said he told the transit officials “that they’re going to have to be much more creative and look at consolidation of some of their operations,” the Journal reported.
If there’s anything that affects us all, it’s transportation. And yet, transportation – from Amtrak to highway maintenance to truck safety – amounts to only about 2.3 percent of the federal budget. Within that 2.3 percent is mass transit, which takes up a princely four-tenths of one percent.
Some critics argue that while people are cozying up to public transit now, they’ll go back to their guzzlers when gas prices drop. But even if the Energy Department's prediction is correct and gas peaks this summer at an average of $3.70 a gallon – rather than spiraling ever upward -- and even if ridership estimates prove extravagant, other factors likely will drive up the demand for public transportation over time.
Today, 15 percent of drivers are 65 or over. By 2025, one in five drivers – 20 percent – will be over 65. Public transportation can make streets safer for everybody. At a time when we need to curb the costs of health care and Medicaid, public transportation can be an ally. Medicaid is the program that pays many seniors’ nursing home bills.
Most Americans prefer to “age in place” and stay in their own homes as long as possible, surveys show. But transportation – or the lack of it – can push seniors out of their homes and into institutions sooner than they want. Currently, 46 percent of Americans have no access to public transportation.
President Obama has proposed a six-year, $556 billion transportation budget to repair existing roads, bridges and transit systems and start a high-speed intercity rail network. He set an ambitious goal of providing 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed passenger rail in 25 years. The blueprint proposes an increase of 127 percent -- $119 billion over six years – in funding for public transportation.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Budget Committee, declared he was “flabbergasted” by the request.
The sticking point, as always, is money. Obama didn’t specify how to pay for $435 billion of the transportation package, and nobody wants to go first.
One possibility could be raising the gas tax, which pays for many transportation projects now, but that would be a hard sell.
Only 27 percent of people support increasing the 18.4-cent-a-gallon gas tax, according to a Rockefeller Foundation survey released last month.
At the same time, it’s unclear how much people really know about the gas tax. The survey also found, as other polls have, that most people believe it goes up every year. The gas tax hasn’t risen since 1993.
© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.