If highways are the enemies of America's cities, then public transit has long been their most stalwart, if often underappreciated, ally. Two recent events have underscored the importance of fixed-rail transit to urban life and they both have a "Washington" connection — the one-day shutdown of the Metrorail system in and around Washington, D.C. and the opening of new light rail stops in Seattle.

The closure of Metrorail last Wednesday was greeted by District residents with all the joy that Northern Iowa college basketball fans can muster after that stunning loss to a Texas A&M men's team they were beating by 12 points with less than one minute left to play. Could this really be happening? Federal agencies allowed unscheduled leave and public schools allowed excused absences as many commuters simply opted to stay home.


The shutdown was necessary because the system's safety was in serious doubt, a product of too many years of deferred maintenance. But while that's a troubling problem, the incident was also revealing in another respect: Metrorail has been so successful in handling D.C. commuters that a mere one-day loss of service threatened chaos. Even though many of those travelers had access to cars, and bus service was augmented as a stop-gap, the nation's capital was in near gridlock.

Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away, light rail stations opened near the University of Washington and on Capitol Hill in Seattle on Saturday as part of the $1.8 billion, 3-mile-long tunnel-dependent light rail extension known as "University Link." In the Pacific Northwest, commuters are feeling a bit more like Aggies fans — thrilled to see a game-winning investment that will make their daily commutes easier. The Seattle Times proudly called it the beginning of a "new era" for the "congested Seattle area."

These are not isolated incidents. Since 1995, ridership on public transit in this country has increased 39 percent, nearly twice the population growth. As of 2014, Americans took 10.8 billion trips annually on various forms of public transportation, the highest number recorded in 58 years by the American Public Transportation Association. Yet Baltimore is in danger of falling behind the trend, particularly with last year's cancellation of the Red Line, the east-west light rail line that was decades in the planning.

One of the more recent developments that favors public transit is the rise of Uber and Lyft, the ride-sharing companies. Now that city residents can summon and pay for a ride at the press of a button on their cellphones, the need to own a vehicle of their own is greatly diminished. Couple that with a safe, clean and convenient public transit system, and cities have become magnets for technology-savvy millennials, quite a few of whom prefer not to drive even if they can afford it.

A recent study commissioned by APTA found that public transit can become a catalyst for knowledge-based economies like the Silicon Beach in Southern California or the Research Triangle in North Carolina. Advocates estimate that every $1 invested in public transportation results in $4 of economic return. And that's not even factoring in how transit reduces congestion, vehicle emissions, fossil fuel consumption and air pollution.

The Red Line may be gone for good, but Baltimore needs an investment in public transit on par with a project that might have been transformative for the region. If Seattle could see the wisdom of investing in an extension to serve a projected 45,000 riders, why can't Maryland make a similar commitment for the 57,000 riders the Red Line was expected to attract? Yet so far, that level of support doesn't seem to be coming from Annapolis.

Good public transit doesn't arrive overnight. When D.C.'s Metrorail first opened in 1976, it had only a handful of stations. Today, it is the second busiest rapid transit system in the U.S. Yet the District's population has actually gotten smaller over that period — from more than 750,000 residents in 1970 to fewer than 675,000 in 2015 (although it's been on the rise in more recent years), according to the most recent census. All any successful transit system needs is a sufficient and continuing revenue source to finance it beyond fares — much as roads and bridges have long benefited from motor fuel taxes. Transit's value to the nation's urban centers is well-documented, but the political will to make that investment (in new starts or repairs) appears to be sporadic, at best.