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System Failure: Why the Public Transit Debate is Stalled
BY ALVIN NICHOLS, Board Member, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Washington, DC

This article is adapted from one that originally appeared in Kogod Now, a publication of the Kogod School of Business, American University, Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission.

We need to stop calling public investment in “public transportation” a subsidy. America’s economic engine, and the very fabric of our society, is held together by its transportation infrastructure. We are a transit-dependent society that has  built its very essence around the ability to go places safely and dependably. Our transportation networks are the arteries that nourish and sustain our way of life.

This is why “subsidy”—the very definition of which is “a grant or gift of money”—is not a suitable term. Nothing in my 35-year career in public service and private industry evidences the case for labeling public spending on public transportation this way.

Public spending on public transportation, in all of its many forms, is undeniably an investment. These investments relieve road congestion, improve air quality and access to leisure and commerce centers, enable the development of new “transit-oriented” communities, and are the anchor to sustainability efforts.

Regrettably, as a society, we have built an inappropriate yet universally embraced vocabulary around public infrastructure issues.

We blithely conduct critically important local and national dialogue using the term “public transportation subsidy” in one form or another.

Consider these examples:

* The Internal Revenue Service Public Transportation Subsidy Program (PTSP) was established to encourage employees to use public transportation when commuting to and from work.

* A column in the Huffington Post, “A Sustainable City Requires Increased Mass Transit Subsidies,” noted that “Bridge tolls and business taxes have been used to subsidize mass transit, along with funds from the state’s budget.”

* The Senate on March 14 passed a surface transportation bill (S. 1813) that includes a measure to increase the mass transit portion of the employee transportation subsidy to $240 per month, wrote the Federal Daily News.

This polarizing national dialogue, so intensely focused on the notion that public spending on public transportation is a subsidy, has throttled the economic progress of our communities. When it comes to funding daily maintenance, repairs, and expansion of our transportation infrastructure, it is the friend that we pretend not to know in its time of greatest need.

Meanwhile, the trains and the rails that carry them, the roads that shoulder our buses and cars, and indeed even the pathways that our bicycles traverse fall into disrepair.

Critical Juncture
America’s diminishing investment in its vital public infrastructure has reached a crisis stage. This alarming state of our public affairs is not new or surprising information to most Americans. It is a condition and risk that we have come to accept with seeming indifference, until the next inevitable catastrophic infrastructure failure jolts us to our very core.

And even then, our outrage and demand for change and renewed investment are often short-lived; we soon drift back to a dangerous state of underinvestment.

The evidence of lack of investment in our public infrastructure is well documented, and few argue that substantially more investment in the country’s infrastructure is urgently required. However, framing the discussions and investment decisions, and building support for making those investments, continues to be our undoing.

In spite of the seemingly obvious need for greater and accelerated investment in our infrastructure, we have failed miserably to make the case.

My professional career, in both the public and private sectors, was launched and largely built around development and implementation of transportation public policy, infrastructure investment, and transit facilities construction and maintenance.

In my experience, whether sponsored and financed with public resources or private ones (and often a combination), the pathway to final “go/no go” decisions is always preceded by careful cost/benefit analysis, with particular emphasis on public benefit.

However, somewhere along the way in our society, we lost track of the idea that funding and ensuring safe, effective, and reliable transportation systems is a necessity for the prosperity of our communities. It is not an optional public investment that can be dramatically curtailed.

My career in public service is largely rooted in state and local government and quasi-government agencies, where “on-the-ground” transit investment decisions are shaped, formalized, and implemented. Lives, communities, and economies are shaped and changed by those decisions and actions.

Case in Point
Currently, I serve as a member of the board of directors of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). Metro, as it is commonly known, operates the regional rail and bus transit system. It is the nation’s second-largest heavy rail system, sixth-largest bus network, and fifth-largest paratransit service.

With its $2.5 billion annual budget, Metro’s economic impact by its spending alone has extraordinary effects on the region and its quality of life.

WMATA’s budget tells only a fraction of its story. On peak days, ridership approaches 1 million people; in 2011, Metro accounted for 217,052,000 rail passenger trips and 124,173,000 bus trips. Ferried by a workforce of 11,000 WMATA employees, these trips carried workers to their jobs, tourists to national monuments, students to school, elderly residents to health-care providers—you get the picture.

Forty-two percent of employees working in Washington, DC’s center core—which includes parts of Arlington County [VA]—use mass transit. And more than a third of the federal government workforce depends upon Metro for its daily commute.

All these figures add up to the point that public spending on public transportation, whether in DC or in the nation at large, is not an optional subsidy, it is an economic necessity. It is a required investment in our very survival and success.

It is a fact that state and local governments fund 42 percent of the daily operating cost of WMATA and its fleet of buses and rail operations. But it is also a fact that without this investment in the region, the local and regional economy would collapse under its own weight.

This public funding of our public transportation enables the jobs, industry, and vitality that support our region. It’s time to aggressively support sufficient and sustained investment in our public transportation facilities, for the preservation of our way of life.

Alvin Nichols, MPA ’78, is principal of the real estate development advisory firm Nichols Creative Development.

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