New Friends Plead the Case for Mass Transit


Washington. -- With budget-cutting Republicans in control of Congress, it figured that mass transit would quickly be in peril. And sure enough, the House's recent budget rescission package cut $140 million out of transit.

More ominous, when House Budget Chairman John R. Kasich of Ohio, rolled out his "illustration plan" to cut some $100 billion over five years, he penciled in mass-transit reductions of $2.3 billion -- amounting to 36 percent of all federal transportation cuts, even though mass transit now gets only 10 percent of Washington's transportation outlays.

How to fight the fund-slashing juggernaut?

The transit authorities are gamely trying. The American Public Transit Association commissioned a national poll, 1,600 telephone queries in January and February. By 61 percent to 30 percent Americans disapproved of cutting train, subway and city bus systems as a budget-trimming strategy.

Asked why, most said they were worried about how the elderly could get around unhindered. Fifty-one percent cited a negative impact on working-class people of modest means.

It's pretty easy, though, for Congress to dismiss mass-transit operators as a self-interested lobby. So a new, informal alliance has taken shape -- business executives, suburban officials and independent experts arguing that public transit is fundamental to the national public interest.

In a March foray on the House Appropriations Committee subcommittee, the charge was led by Elmer Johnson, a Chicago attorney and former General Motors executive vice president who sees a transportation crisis developing and has written a report -- "Avoiding the Collision of Cities and Cars" -- for the National Academy of Sciences.

It's preposterous to look at mass transit as some kind of orphan child, Mr. Johnson says. Federal investments in transportation date from early canals and building of a national rail system to the interstate highway system. It's a critical part of an integrated transport system that makes the national economy work.

Auto riders benefit from public transit. Take away the Chicago Transit Authority, for example, and a crushing new burden of 700,000 autos would clog the already strained local highway system.

The problem, according to Mr. Johnson, is excessive reliance on private cars. Autos are convenient; they have a big role to play. But oversubsidizing auto use through more and more roads and tax-free parking has ugly consequences.

For all the breakthroughs in making cars more fuel-efficient, air pollution remains a problem. Autos spawn incredible congestion at least $100 billion in lost American productivity each year. They increase our alarming dependence on Middle East oil. And they encourage wasteful sprawl development.

"The one policy we haven't tried," says Mr. Johnson, "is less auto use." But to do that, we need alternatives: buses, commuter rail. Citizens in a rich citistate such as Zurich have as many cars as we do, but they have quality transit alternatives, so they use autos less.

Glenn Cornell, senior vice president of NationsBank, testified with Mr. Johnson, insisting that major employers need rapid rail systems like Atlanta's MARTA to reduce air pollution by getting more workers out of private cars on their daily commutes.

Now, said Mr. Cornell, reverse commuting -- from cities out to suburban work sites -- is becoming critical. "If the inner cities are to survive, we need to transport people who need jobs the most to surrounding areas. This is a business, not a social issue."

You have to wonder if congressional Republicans will believe any of this. Or if they'll even heed the argument that work-oriented welfare reform will never work if poor people have no way to get to jobs.

It's a lot easier for the new Capitol Hill crowd to discriminate against mass transit because it's public (as if that were a disease) and because it has the "wrong" constituency -- low-income people who (1) often don't own cars and (2) rarely vote Republican.

The emergence of a new lobbying coalition could be a breakthrough, however. It adds credibility mass-transit operators can't bring. It might help get federal relief from federal rules and regulations that weigh down transit.

Example: When Steve Goldsmith, Indianapolis' Republican mayor, tried to create some minority franchises to create van services to compete with or supplement the local transit authority, he ran square into the so-called "13 c" provision of federal law that says one can't compete with a transit authority without permission of the drivers' union.

Transit advocates say even reduced federal rules won't be enough unless (1) a decent level of national funding continues, and (2) some of the big disincentives against transit -- tax-free employer-provided parking, for example -- aren't curbed.

The District of Columbia has just struck a blow on this score, imposing a $20-a-month fee on free parking in the city, not just for revenue but to encourage people to use mass transit or join car pools.

But the same Congress that's salivating about mass-transit cuts may revoke D.C.'s parking law. A lot more creative lobbying may be necessary before this bunch wakes up.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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