Public transit is making a surprise comeback

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted May 22, 2000

During World War II, the War Department rationed gasoline and stopped the production of automobiles for three years. So most everyone rode public transit which was then available in most cities of any size.

Following the war, and the post war prosperity which followed, the automobile came back with a vengeance and transit ridership began to decline. Year after year the decline continued. Even after President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society began to spend federal funds on mass transit, the decline continued. Despite government subsidies at all levels, fewer and fewer people rode buses, trolleys and commuter trains.

Many urban planners wrote off transit and increasingly public transportation was viewed as a necessity for the poor, the old and the infirm and not the middle class. The middle class had long ago abandoned transit in favor of the automobile. In fact, most who used their own cars drove alone.

In the l990's urban areas became more and more congested. Some cities began to again invest in public transit, but still there was no real turnaround in sight.

But wait! Something dramatic has happened very quietly and almost without notice. Suddenly people are riding mass transit again. In 1999 some 9 billion trips were taken. Bill Millar, President of the American Public Transportation Association, hadn't seen figures like that in 40 years.

Dwight Eisenhower was President the last time 9 billion transit trips were taken in the United States.

Last year transit ridership grew by 4.5 per cent while during that same year, automobile traffic rose by only 2 per cent. That is the first time since World War II that transit ridership outpaced the automobile.

Near full employment is contributing to this new positive situation for transit. But also traffic congestion is playing a major role as well. The middle class is finally sick and tired of being stuck in traffic day after day and is looking for an alternative. In some communities, that alternative is now available.

The ridership increase is all the more significant because half of the nation still has no viable mass transit available to the population. And for a significant portion of the public which does have access to transit, it is still not attractive. Slow, oftentimes noisy and dirty diesel buses are all that many transit riders can take.

Thus the significant increase in ridership is coming in those areas where fast, comfortable and reliable rail service is available.

That is a minority of places in the nation to be sure, but more and more localities are opting for rail.

After several defeats at the polls, voters in Denver approved a major expansion of the light rail system in that metropolitan area in November 1999 by a wider margin than companion highway expansion was approved.

Phoenix, which four times earlier had turned down rail proposals, approved a light rail system earlier this year by a two-thirds margin. "The voters are drivers and they are sick and tired of sitting in traffic," one Chamber of Commerce official said in explaining the surprisingly strong vote in Phoenix.

In some localities, voters turned down rail, but the transit authority went ahead and built it anyway. That was true in Denver and once voters had a chance to ride the system their view of it changed for the better. The same appears to be happening in Salt Lake City. There voters turned down rail decisively twice. But because funds were available for the Olympics, officials built a 15-mile line anyway. That is proving to be more popular than projected and now some of the same officials who were adamantly opposed to rail just a year or two ago are now pushing to expand the system to their areas.

Altogether there are some 58 projects now in the works for either entirely new rail systems or expansion of existing systems. An additional 70 projects have some chance of being approved. New projects could be inaugurated ever sixty days for the next decade. This is an amazing turnaround for an industry which saw nothing but retrenchment and abandonments for the past several decades.

It is the shift in the middle class that is making the difference. In Chicago, METRA, the agency which runs the commuter lines, enjoys overwhelming public support from the largely affluent and politically conservative voters who make up the transit district. In Dallas, which began a light rail and commuter rail system four years ago, has seen middle class sentiment shift from angry opposition to DART (the transit agency) to an 86 per cent approval rating. The argument in Dallas is no longer whether or not to build rail but rather how fast can rail lines be built to new areas.

The pattern is virtually the same everywhere. Usually before a new rail system is built there is strident opposition to the proposed system. Such was the case May 6 in San Antonio, where voters went to the polls to vote on light rail. But once trains begin to roll, public attitudes change.

To be sure the vast majority of the public will continue to use their cars.

Even in those communities with outstanding rail alternatives, the automobile predominates. But what commuters are increasingly beginning to figure out is that by taking some people off of the highways they are making it better for those who do want to or have to drive. In Washington, D.C., now the second worse traffic generator in the nation, the METRO rail system now regularly carries 600,000 passengers a day. Put those folks back on the streets and there would be total gridlock.

That middle class conservative voters are beginning to vote to raise their own taxes to build alternative rail facilities is clearly a major change in public attitudes.

These conservatives have realized that the key to decent urban living is balanced transportation. They don't buy Vice President Al Gore's total opposition to the internal combustion engine. They don't want to be forced out of their cars. But they would like to have a choice, which the all-automobile-all-the-time construct didn't afford them.

That mass transit is making a significant comeback is good news for all of us. That it is being done in a framework of choice rather than coercion is even better news. Contrary to the popular myth that the automobile pays for itself while public transit is heavily subsidized, the truth is that ALL forms of transportation are subsidized. You couldn't afford a gallon of gas if all of the costs of operating our streets and highways came from user taxes. Most of the money comes from the general fund. So as long as money has to be spent, it is about time that the taxpayers are getting a choice.

And the news is even better. Some of these transit improvement projects are not confined to only the biggest cities. Even places such as Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Sioux City, Iowa, are getting on the bandwagon.

Come to think of it, the turn of this Century is beginning to look a lot like the turn of the last Century when mass transit was first coming in to its own. That this would be happening is not a prediction many of us would have been willing to make just a few short years ago.

Paul Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.

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