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This November’s election was packed with transit-focused ballot questions, and like in past years, investing in transit proved popular with voters. Overall, voters approved 34 of the 49 transit-related ballot measures worth a combined total $170 billion, marking the largest number of transit initiatives in an election in U.S. history. Particularly large and notable proposals include a half-cent sales tax increase to fund $120 billion in new light rail lines and extensions, multiple bus rapid transit (BRT) projects in Los Angeles, as well as a $54 billion proposal in Seattle to build 62 miles of new light rail, 37 new stations, and new BRT lines over the next 25 years.
“This election, yet again, affirms the public’s widespread desire for more and better public transit,” said John Olivieri, National Campaign Director for 21st Century Transportation at the United States Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG). “Transit remains a critical tool that improves mobility options for consumers, reduces dangerous pollution, and plays a key role in giving people healthy and active alternatives to gridlock. The public understands this and wants to see more,” he added.
Yet, despite the public’s continued desire to see greater investment in transit, historically transit has received only a small minority of funding at the federal level. Currently, only 20 percent of available federal transportation funds are invested in transit and just 1 percent of funds are invested in biking and walking infrastructure. Meanwhile, 80 percent of federal transportation dollars continue to be spent on roads.
“While many localities recognize the need to invest in transit, biking, and pedestrian solutions that can bring our transportation system into the 21st century, federal officials remain woefully behind the curve,” said Olivieri. “While it is great to see such widespread support of transit at the local level, the need for these measures speaks volumes about how out of sync federal decision makers are with the wants and needs of the American people,” he added.
The nation currently faces an $86 billion transit maintenance repair backlog, while data from the Federal Highway Administration’s National Bridge Inventory show that despite the large discrepancy at the federal level between investment in transit and spending on roads, the nation’s road system is in similarly bad shape. To date, more than 58,000 bridges remain structurally deficient.
“Despite the fact that roads receive 80 percent of available federal transportation dollars, both transit and roads continue to face enormous repair and maintenance backlogs,” said Lauren Aragon, Transportation Fellow at U.S. PIRG. “While the overall level of funding is important, how states spend the limited federal funding they receive can have even greater consequences but states continue to funnel road funding into new and wider highway projects, leaving the existing system to crumble. We need to fix what we have already built first,” she added.
A 2014 report from Smart Growth America found that from 2009-2011, states spent 55 percent of available transportation dollars on expanding 1 percent of the current system, and the remaining 45 percent repairing and maintaining the other 99 percent.
“Getting our infrastructure right isn’t only about additional funding,” said Olivieri. “States waste billions on new and wider highway projects, many of which are outright boondoggles, while ignoring pressing repair and maintenance needs. These funds could be more effectively spent expanding access to transit, biking, and pedestrian options or repairing existing infrastructure,” he added.
More information on the true cost of roads can be found in a recent report by U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group, “Who Pays for Roads?”
More information on our flawed transportation spending priorities can be found in U.S. PIRG report, “Highway Boondoggles 2: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future”.
More information on how our nation’s current federal and state transportation policies set us back in the fight against climate change can be found in the Frontier Group report, “50 Steps Toward Carbon-Free Transportation: Rethinking U.S Transportation Policy to Fight Global Warming.”
More information on the benefits of decreased driving can be found in a recent report by MassPIRG, “What’s at Stake? How Decreasing Driving Miles in Massachusetts Will Save Lives, Money, Injuries and the Environment.”
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