Maryland Senator Ben Cardin: America Needs Transit, Now

cardin.jpgThe $1.7 billion in public transportation funding promised by the Saving Energy Through Public Transportation Act would be a step in the right direction, but it pales in comparison to what might have been. The Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act — the cap-and-trade bill that died in the Senate last month — would have brought 100 times that much in federal transit investment, thanks in large part to Senator Ben Cardin. In a recent interview with Grist, the Maryland Democrat offers a refreshing perspective on the future of US transportation policy.

We are in desperate need of significant transit improvements. We’ve got to have the facilities and we don’t today, and then we need the fare-box and economic policies that reward people for taking public transportation. Some try to say that it should be "self-sufficient" or have a certain percentage return through the fare-box. We don’t do that on our roads, and public transportation is much better for so many reasons — not just the environment or the quality of life. We should be providing much stronger incentives for people to use public transportation, but first you need to have the facilities.

I’m a big, big supporter of dramatic change in public transportation. It includes more than just the bus and rail systems in our urban areas. It includes a commuter rail and inner-city rail — the whole gamut of services that get people out of their personal vehicles. I don’t want people driving their personal vehicles the way they are today.

Even in the era of $4/gal gasoline, not many elected officials would go on record with such heresies. But that may be changing. Gas tax "holiday" talk has all but evaporated over the past few weeks as pols promote transit as an answer to higher gas prices. And a column in today’s Boston Globe predicts that Senator John McCain’s dogged and sustained effort to undermine Amtrak could create an opening for transit-friendly Barack Obama heading into November.

6 thoughts on Maryland Senator Ben Cardin: America Needs Transit, Now

  1. For some time I have pondered how the current transit operations in the U.S. are structured to fill a rather limited role. The funding, facilities, etc. cater to transit dependent, peak suburban to city center commuters, etc. A mode shift of even a a few percent would create chaos, especially for bus operations.

    Some anti-rail advocate rhapsodize about the period in the early 1980s when Prop A subsidized a 50 cent fare on RTD. They cite statistics about ridership growth, etc. and decry the eventual shift of those fundsa to rail construction. But my sources tell me for riders it was a near free for all – overcrowded, dirty buses that were unreliable.

    I recently ran across a comment on a blog that the funds from the proposed new L.A. County sales tax should be for buses, and that with two billion dollars we could have lots of new bus service within months. This shows utter ignorence about the complexities of bus operations. For example, it takes 18-24 months to get a bus from the manufacturer once it is ordered. Also Metro is at capacity at its yards and is years from opening the two sites that will have new yards. Plus who would drive these buses, clean and maintain them?

    This is a situation that money allow won’t solve.

  2. Um, as usual, NewSpeak prevails.

    Just exactly how does Public Transportation “Save Energy”?
    Is there even one conclusive study that suggests this?

    Mass transit may reduce congestion, divert air pollution, shift costs, and in some cases, save motor fuel if powered by CNG/LNG (sorry, biofuels don’t count yet), but where is the net energy savings?

  3. “Plus who would drive these buses, clean and maintain them?”

    ———–

    Exactly.

    While every metropolis needs a strong bus system, buses in themselves are not the solution to keeping Los Angeles mobile, nor economically and environmentally sustainable.

  4. Some anti-rail advocate rhapsodize about the period in the early 1980s when Prop A subsidized a 50 cent fare on RTD. They cite statistics about ridership growth, etc. and decry the eventual shift of those fundsa to rail construction. But my sources tell me for riders it was a near free for all – overcrowded, dirty buses that were unreliable.

    There was an interesting phenomenon when we had the 50 cent fare.

    This idea gave the wrong feedback in a big way. When the fare dropped, boardings increased in a big way.

    BUT …

    The pattern for years had been steady year-over-year declines. The 50 cent fares at best stabilized the system.

    What had happened was that the boardings were weighted to the lines that already had high ridership to begin with, and most of the ridership was from existing riders making more trips rather than luring new riders to the system. The peak-hour express buses and infrequent local bus service in outlying areas did not see the upside.

    Also, the operational frame of mind of the RTD was to preserve everyone’s jobs. Why did buses remain crowded and dirty? Because the employees of the RTD feared that the more attention they called to the system, even for appeals to improve it, the more likely it would be pointed out that ridership will irreversibly decline and the system must be shut down.

  5. TrueBeliever,

    Transit saves energy by getting vastly better passenger miles per joule. Even a half filled Amtrak train is getting better passenger miles to the gallon, and the equipment has greater longevity and less maintenance costs than the equivalent number of private vehicles. There’s no conclusive study because there is no study.

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