The success this summer of a fledgling downtown streetcar line in Kansas City has been "eye-popping," the local press reports, with thousands more riders than anyone predicted. Voters love such urban transportation projects, too — in 2014, more than two-thirds of transit-funding referendums won approval. Ridership on all forms of transit, from buses to subway lines, reached a 58-year high last year to a total of 10.8 billion trips nationwide.
Given that level of public interest and support, it's fair to ask anyone running for Congress or the White House this year: What are you going to do about improving public transportation? No matter the candidate, the answer is actually fairly simple to predict as it divides pretty neatly between the two major political parties.
It all comes down to a question of money: Republicans don't want to spend a dime of federal tax dollars on transit, and Democrats want to spend more than what is provided today.
Don't take our word for it, those positions are clearly spelled out in the political platforms approved by the delegates to the Democratic and Republican national conventions in July. The GOP platform makes the case that transit spending should be removed from the federal Highway Trust Fund (about 20 percent of the trust fund is spent on transit now), as public transportation is an "inherently local affair that serves only a small portion of the population."
And that's not all. The Republicans don't care for interstate transit either. They call Amtrak an "extremely expensive railroad" undeserving of taxpayer subsidy. They'd hand over the Northeast Corridor and other lines to private interests and end federal support for "boondoggles like California's high-speed train to nowhere."
Indeed, the GOP platform on transportation could easily have been written by highway contractors or the oil companies. It also pooh-poohs spending on bike-sharing, sidewalks, recreational trails, landscaping, ferry boats and scenic byways. Give those Republican policy writers blacktop or give them nothing at all.
The Democrats, on the other hand, offer support for a broad range of public infrastructure, including highways, bridges and transit as part of the party's job-creation plank and a way to "put millions of Americans back to work" and "create secure, good-paying middle class jobs." The authors also boast about the benefits of "green and resillient infrastructure" and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Too bad the Democrats come up a bit short in suggesting ways to pay for these upgrades. But then perhaps that's the nature of party platforms that focus on what they believe voters want and gloss over the less-popular consequences.
Still, that's light years ahead of the position the GOP has staked out on transportation. For a party that talks big on energy independence, it's disappointing that Republicans want to put more gas guzzlers on the road and skimp on fuel-sipping transit. It shouldn't be a partisan issue — not when transit ridership is growing faster than highway traffic (up 39 percent since 1995 compared to 25 percent for "vehicle miles traveled," according to the American Public Transportation Association).
Reducing air pollution, reviving American cities, creating economic opportunities, reducing traffic congestion — all those benefits come from greater investment in transit. Polls show millennials would much prefer to hop a light rail or subway train or the like to get to work rather than commute by car. Political leaders who fail to notice this 21st century preference could get left in the proverbial dust.
If highways aren't viable without taxpayer subsidy, why should we expect other forms of transportation to work that way? Even Donald Trump has shown greater interest in rail transportation than his own party's platform — he voiced support for high-speed rail a year ago, telling one British newspaper that if China and other countries could have such trains, the U.S. ought to have them, too. "We will get it going and we will do it property," he told the Guardian.
What neither side is saying is that the nation has an extraordinary opportunity right now to reduce its dependence on automobiles and costly highways. A carbon tax — or even an updated federal gas tax that factors in inflation — could finance billions in needed infrastructure at a time when gasoline prices are remarkably low. Millennials want transit? They could have it, but only if the nation's leaders are willing to make that necessary investment now.