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Public Transit Investment Fuels More Jobs

Commentary, Carli Paine Posted: Jan 19, 2009

Editor's Note: Investment in mass transit creates and sustains jobs far better than highway construction writes NAM contributor Carli Paine.

OAKLAND, Calif. In response to the current economic crisis, the Obama administration has pledged to pass an aggressive economic recovery bill to create jobs and jumpstart the U.S. economy. President Obama requested that the proposed legislation be completed by the time he takes office.

Last week, Democrats in the House of Representatives revealed their economic recovery package, which calls for $90 billion in roads, bridges, waterways, and transit infrastructure investments. Public transportation capital investments would receive $10 billion under this proposal and $30 billion would go for highway construction.

Public transportation is far more than a social service for people without cars. The truth is that buses, trains, and ferries are an integral component of local and regional economies and must be central to the Obama administration's economic recovery package.

Why? Transit connects people and employers. It pollutes far less than cars. And, perhaps most important in this economic crisis, it creates and sustains jobs far better than the leading transportation investment optionhighway construction.

In fact, public transportation creates 19 percent more jobs than the same investment in building roads or highways, according to an analysis of a 2004 United States Department of Transportation jobs creation model. And, according to the California Transit Association, for every $1 billion invested in new public transit projects, some 31,400 jobs are created and $3 billion is pumped into the local economy.

The figures make a lot of sense when you consider the difference in these endeavors: building new roads and expanding highways mostly involves paving over dirt, with some amount of construction of raised flyovers and interchanges. Extending a rail line means manufacturing the rail and the rail cars, then laying them, and after they are laid, on-going operation of the train. Similarly, new bus lines involve vehicle and parts manufacturing and long-term operations. Because most transit agencies also have Buy America policies, public transportation investment creates industry jobs in the United States, as well as construction jobson-going operating jobs are an added plus.

For individuals struggling to reduce their personal expenses in this affordability crisis, being able to rely on buses and trains can free up money that would otherwise be spent on a car. In the United States, transportation is the second highest household expense, after housing. But people who live in a neighborhood well served by public transportation are able to reduce their spending on transportation from 25 percent of their household budget to just 9 percent. The money they save can go to ensuring that they pay their mortgage or rent on time or these dollars can go back into the economy through purchasing goods and services.

If the recovery package is going to be truly green, it must support and enhance local air quality, energy efficiency, and reduce global warming pollution. With transportation contributing one-third of all global warming pollution nationally, it's clear that we need transportation solutions that give people reliable, affordable alternatives to driving for every trip. Public transportation produces 95 percent less carbon monoxide (CO), 90 percent less in volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and about half as much carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx), per passenger mile, as private vehicles.

Investing in public transportation improves local air quality and health by reducing asthma-inducing and smog-forming pollution. In addition, public transportation reduces dependence on fossil fuels and puts us on track to fighting global warming. Expanding roads and highways undoubtedly leads to higher driving-related pollution in the long term.

We're fortunate that President Obama and congressional leaders like Speaker Pelosi come from cities with robust public transportation systems. They know firsthand that a network of buses, trains, and ferries can create stronger, more inclusive economies. They also have seen the reality facing communities in San Francisco's Bayview-Hunters Point and broad sections of Chicago's South Side that are not served by efficient public transportationfor these communities, the lack of public transportation means that they are disconnected and unable to participate in the regional economy.

It's not enough, though, to direct economic recovery funding to the metal and nuts and bolts that make public transportation a reality. To get the highest return on this investment, we must make sure that there's sufficient funding to operate the new trains and buses. There are huge shortfalls to operate the existing public transportation operations in the United States. This is more true than ever as states like California move to eliminate funding for transit operations and as local sales tax revenues-- frequent sources of transit operation funding-- decline nationwide. Adding new routes and lines without providing funds to fuel, staff, and maintain them will spread the insufficient operating funds even thinner. Only by pursuing capital improvements along with operations support can we realize the full economic and environmental benefits of recovery investments in public transportation.

The national economy is faltering badly. It is time the federal government recognized and supported public transportation's role in propelling our economy into the 21st century.

Carli Paine is the transportation program director for TransForm. TransForm (formerly the Transportation and Land Use Coalition) works for world-class transportation and walkable communities in the Bay Area and beyond.

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