APTA | Passenger Transport
September 22, 2008

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Public Transit an Investment, Not Expense
By Ray Melleady, Executive Director, Capital District Transportation Authority, Albany, NY

First published: Sunday, August 24, 2008 Ray Melleady

Imagine operating a train traveling at 55 miles an hour and having workers laying the track you are traveling on just one mile in front of you. What would you do: Accelerate or slow down?

The answer is obvious: You would only move as quickly as there was track available to operate safely and reliably.

Sound ridiculous? This is exactly what running a public transit system is like in the United States where, with few exceptions, our infrastructure investment in the past 50 years has been built to support one mode of transportation — the car.

Transit systems are planning for the future, but within the context of survival. We have run out of track. We simply do not have enough capacity to meet current and future service demands.

When you regulate capacity, you regulate choice. For the most part, America has accepted a one-dimensional mobility strategy. That is until gas prices rockets past $4 a gallon and people quickly realize that most transit systems are not prepared to handle surges in ridership that came with increased energy costs.

As a result, some families are forced to choose between filling their gas tanks and filling their stomachs. Likewise, transit systems are forced to choose between cutting service and raising fares to balance budgets and pay for fuel.

The implications are obvious: We have created an economy that is completely dependent on the automobile. We are not prepared for high-energy prices, our transportation infrastructure is suspect, and our economy is being held hostage by the high cost of energy and our dependence on foreign sources.

Public transportation is a key part of the solution. This is a tremendous opportunity to recreate what was built 50 years ago for national security reasons when our highway system was created to move goods and people as part of a national defense strategy.

In our rebuild, we must re-create a system that moves people and goods efficiently but the focus must be on public transportation. Creating new capacity and improved travel options will help our communities become energy independent and our nation more secure.

Investing in public transportation systems is more efficient, less costly and more practical than building roads or investing in research and development that will take 20 years to spawn workable new products.

Without a significant change in public policy and funding models, transit systems are caught between equally perilous alternatives, neither of which can be passed without negatively affecting the convenience and reliability of transit services.

Most transit systems will either cut services or raise fares to balance budgets. Both options make transit service less attractive and less relevant to the communities they serve.

Moreover, cutting services reduces capacity, which further encourages single-occupant vehicle use and higher energy dependence. This vicious cycle is what led us to where we are today — an automobile dependent society that can no longer afford the economic realities of the system it created.

How can we change and how fast can we effectuate that change? What are the solutions — new fuel taxes, taxes on vehicle miles traveled, toll charges?

There is no shortage of recommendations when it comes to funding public transportation. Today, our biggest shortfall is a lack of action and commitment to a cause.

If we want to increase and improve travel options, we must build new facilities to house equipment and hire and train appropriate staff. At the same time, we need adequate funds for operations, and to purchase fuel and parts.

Investments in public transportation today will impact communities three to five years from now. That is because it takes time to realize the physical outcome of the decision to invest capital today.

Transit is an investment, not an expense. The only thing more expensive than investing in transit infrastructure today is deferring the inevitable cost to our children 10 and 15 years from now. Now is the time for stakeholders to speak with one voice to advocate for more and better transit service.

This is a direct call to elected officials, business leaders, chambers of commerce, labor unions and transit managers. If you are serious about energy independence and conservation, we need to advocate for the authorization of new public policy and funding initiatives that reward communities for developing a strong public transportation infrastructure.

The communities that get it right will grow and prosper. The ones that get it wrong will shrink and preside over a slow and steady decline.

The stakes couldn't be higher and we need to play the right hand now. The economic and social health of our nation is dependent on the choices we make today. We should choose public policies that support the efficient movement of goods and people for a healthy and prosperous tomorrow.

Toward that end, public transportation is a wise investment.

Ray Melleady is executive director of the Capital District Transportation Authority and vice president of the New York Public Transit Association.

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2008, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.



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