For too long, the transit industry has accepted the role of stepchild to the highway industry. That has to change in light of current events. Americans are ahead of their elected officials and, yes, even their transit officials, in thinking about the future. They are asking for new transportation solutions and choices. It is no coincidence that many communities with conservative electorates, such as Phoenix, Denver, Dallas and Houston, have aggressive public transit programs. By 2010, over 60 percent of Americans will live in cities. Around the country, people are “voting green.” Many cities are exploring congestion pricing, and sustainability has become a household word.
It is time for a national transit vision that captures America’s imagination. APTA’s group-defining national purpose has suggested America should lead the world in developing transit infrastructure. This bold vision should include quality bus transit service within a quarter mile of every household. As in Europe, every American city over 500,000 people should have a combination of bus, rail and alternative transit modes. A network of high-speed rail should connect major cities across the country as part of our effort to keep interstate commerce moving.
We also need local advocacy to support transit expansion in urban and rural America. Everyday we read about transit systems under pressure to cut service due to rising fuel costs. It is unconscionable that at a time when people need our service the most, transit systems are forced to cut service. This is a national problem dramatically impacting local economies.
Now, there are many who would say we cannot afford such a bold vision. Frankly that is nonsense. Our country is investing less of our nation’s GNP for infrastructure than most of the industrial world. More importantly, the cost of not boldly investing in transit could be catastrophic to our national economy. Fuel prices will most likely exceed $5 a gallon by the end of the summer, sapping billions of dollars out of our economy due to people making fewer trips. Our cherished mobility and freedom of movement is being threatened by people in the world who would like nothing more than see a transportation crisis in our country.
What can be done? At the national level, there must be a marketing and political campaign making the case for immediate new investment in transit. This investment could come from a windfall profits tax, climate change legislation or a new economic stimulus package. A champion for transit, the equivalent of Al Gore for climate change, needs to be identified to help Americans embrace this new vision.
At the local level, transit policy makers need to be supported by riders, advocacy groups and new champions. There needs to be public outrage if transit service is not expanded, let alone cut. APTA, the Center for Transportation Excellence, Surface Transportation Policy Project, state transit associations and other such groups should come to the aid of communities where potential transit cuts are being proposed with marketing materials, speakers, and political support. It should be viewed as un-American and politically incorrect to reduce mobility options to Americans at this time of energy and economic crisis.
Yes, it is time to be bold, to perhaps act like our industry has never acted and change the course of history for our country. Anything less does a disservice to all Americans.
Alan C. Wulkan is based in Scottsdale, Ariz., and is managing partner at InfraConsult LLC.