February 10, 2012 Liz Borkowski, MPH 5Comment

The House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee has approved what Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood calls “the worst transportation bill I’ve ever seen during 35 years of public service.” LaHood spent 14 years in Congress, serving as a Republican representative from Illinois, and told Politico that Congress always came together in the past to support transportation, but HR 7 is the most partisan transportation bill he’s ever seen.

For the past 30 years, federal transportation legislation has allocated a small portion of the national gas tax to transit funding. Under the new five-year bill just passed by the House Committee, guaranteed funding for public transportation systems will disappear, and only roads will be ensured a steady stream of revenue.

House Republicans seem to care more about drivers than transit riders, but they should remember something: public transportation also benefits people who don’t use it.

To begin with, traffic congestion frustrates drivers, and public transportation can alleviate congestion. A lot of the people riding bus and trains might opt to drive if the transit options deteriorate (which tends to happens when funding gets cut) — and, conversely, improving public transportation systems can take cars off the road and lead to faster trips for those who are still driving. Reducing traffic congestion also improves air quality, and that helps everyone.

The mistaken assumption that roads and public transportation are in opposition to one another also ignores the fact that many people are both drivers and transit riders. Some people will commute in the car or when they’re ferrying children or hauling groceries, but take the bus out to dinner or a party when they expect to drink alcohol. People who don’t want to put down their laptops or smartphones while they’re commuting can ride the train to work and save the car for running errands. Public transportation can also be more important in some stages of life than in others — teenagers can take the bus downtown at rush hour while they hone their driving skills in calmer settings, and the elderly can use transit more as they age and find it harder to drive at night or on long journeys.

Having public transportation alternatives for drivers who are tipsy, glued to smartphones, inexperienced, or impaired in some other way also keeps the road safer for everyone else who’s using them.

In short, axing of guaranteed public-transportation funding will harm drivers, too, even though it continues a revenue stream for roads.

Transportation for America summarizes the problems with the House bill and asks voters to call their Representatives to tell them to vote no on HR 7. The Center for American Progress has a more-detailed look at “seven fatal flaws” in the House bill.

In contrast to disastrous and sharply partisan House bill, a bipartisan and better-than-HR 7 Senate bill has cleared its first floor vote 85-11.

5 thoughts on “Awful House transportation bill forgets that transit benefits drivers, too

  1. Today’s GOP House Members tend to come from districts with very low population density, so unless a bus or subway car manufacturer is a big local employer, they will not support transit. These districts are very highway-dependent, so they want the money to go for roads, bridges, and tunnels. You can imagine what these folks think about bike and pedestrian projects.

  2. I’m sure Members’ positions are influenced by the density of their districts, and projects like subways don’t make sense in many places. Bus lines don’t require as much investment, though, and bike paths can be very cheap. (Another problem with HR 7 is that it cuts out bike and pedestrian funding.)

    I do realize that it’s hard to justify a bus line if only a handful of people take it, but I think there’s a lot of transit demand right now that isn’t being met. With so many people suffering financially, lawmakers can’t expect that everyone can afford a car … and if there’s no way for carless workers to get to their jobs, how can they be expected to earn money?

  3. Sadly, congressmen do expect everyone to own a car. The most active political contributors in rural districts tend to be car dealers and road builders. In politics, as in many areas of life, immediate self-interest trumps rational planning every time.

    In rural areas the price of fuel, maintenence, and vehicles limits access to employment, healthcare, and other aspects of a free society for low income citizens, their children, and the elderly. Remediation efforts is through van services, and often shows up in other parts of the budget. Maybe if funding for these services was bundled with FTA funding, rural congressmen would be more likely to grasp the concept.

  4. I often feel we should call them out and say “OK let’s be like Sweden where most roads are privately funded”. Some people think that transit and pedestrian and bike infrastructure should not be funded by government but should compete, but they have no problem subsidizing auto transportation with public funds, and don’t see that as unfair competition. How many roads and spread out suburbs would we have if all those people had to pay for the roads themselves, instead of relying on wealthier taxpayers that lived elsewhere?

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