APTA | Passenger Transport
December 7, 2009

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Redirect new infrastructure stimulus toward mass transit

This column appeared in The Detroit News on Nov. 19, 2009. Reprinted by permission of the author.

The nation’s unemployment rate is at its highest level in 26 years, 10.2 percent, so policymakers are searching for ways to stimulate the economy again. The hottest proposition so far is the federal transportation bill.

Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell separately suggested that reauthorizing a transportation bill soon could be the best way to create new jobs. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN) has been pushing since last summer for a new federal surface transportation bill that would invest nearly $500 billion in transportation infrastructure.

Whether such a bill can be put to the best use for jobs depends on whether Congress and the Obama administration do the right kind of transportation infrastructure investment. One good approach would be to focus on repairing existing infrastructure: Fill the potholes and refurbish old bridges that cost Americans time, money and wear-and-tear on vehicles.

However, the best approach would be to direct new investment in public mass transit because it creates the most jobs per dollar spent, according to the Surface Transportation Policy Project (2004). It also responds to the growing demand for good transit that began with rising gasoline prices in 2008. In addition, mass transit investment also cuts air and global warming pollution.

In fact, a new report by the Duke University Center on Globalization, Governance & Competitiveness shows that increasing investment in conventional and green transit bus systems would cut greenhouse gas pollution around the country and create high-quality, long-term manufacturing jobs in nearly every state in the eastern United States.

The study notes that: “Many of these jobs are in Midwestern states deeply affected by the recession”—such as Michigan (15.3 percent), Ohio (10.1 percent) and Indiana (10 percent)—“where manufacturing employment and capacity, especially in the motor vehicle industry, are crucial for maintaining a leadership position throughout the recovery period and beyond.”

Unfortunately, current U.S. transportation policy greatly favors funding highways over public transit. The result is small and sporadic bus orders, making it difficult for the bus industry to grow.

The Duke study authors conclude that: “If federal, state, and local policy were to shift to a clear, sustained commitment to public transit, the nation would have the manufacturing capability to meet the resulting increased demand for transit buses.” In short, American companies have the know-how and the talent; they just need sustained funding.

Ironically, things are better abroad for U.S. bus manufacturers. The study notes that U.S. companies have established themselves as global leaders in hybrid bus manufacturing. Unfortunately, European firms are rapidly catching up because their countries’ governments more consistently invest in transit, so unless U.S. bus systems have funds to invest, hybrid-diesel bus manufacturing here could suffer.

Early testing for hydrogen-electric hybrids is ongoing in California, at Sunline Transit, Santa Barbara Valley Transit Authority and AC Transit and in Connecticut at CTTRANSIT.

Buses are the main U.S. transit mode, accounting for 40 percent of all transit passenger miles. Continuing growth in transit demand could translate into larger and more consistent bus orders, but domestic demand is dependent largely on the availability of public funding for bus transit. Bus manufacturers in the United States primarily manufacture on a built-to-order basis and many agencies no longer can afford to meet federal financing formulas that require a local funding match of 20 percent.

Whether it be through transportation bill reauthorization or a new stimulus bill, new transportation funding needs to flow to transit. We have a great opportunity to create new manufacturing jobs during tough economic times and cut greenhouse gas emissions. We only need the political will to make it happen.

Kathryn Phillips is a transportation policy expert for Environmental Defense Fund.

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