How the Transportation Bill Failed America

Congress had an opportunity to bring America into the 21st century. Instead it chose to pass a bill that will do little to improve access to public transportation.

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Whether you drive to work every morning, hop on a subway or bus, or just pull the bike out for a ride around town, you need to pay attention to the transportation bill that Congress finally passed this week. The bill is a significant step backward and falls woefully short of creating a balanced system that serves all Americans and invests adequately in options and our growing metros.

Why does the bill matter? Because transportation is the second highest cost in American households (and the highest if you are a low-wage worker). Traffic costs Americans an estimated 4.2 billion hours and $87 billion in productivity each year. One of every nine of our highway bridges are currently deemed "structurally deficient." The multi-billion dollar surface transportation bill that Congress just passed is what pays for your road improvements, your state-of-the-art bus rapid transit, and it should create or save hundreds of thousands of jobs. 

These transportation decisions touch every American directly, determining access to work and services, the cost of the goods we buy and the amount of emissions we release.

I commend the citizens and policymakers who fought valiantly but unsuccessfully to achieve a much better outcome than what we are left with today. Lawmakers had the opportunity to achieve transformative change. They didn’t seize it. The bipartisan bill that previously passed the Senate would have provided funds to repair structurally deficient bridges. It also imposed a needed degree of accountability on transit authorities and empowered local governments to make streets safer for all users.

In the final compromise, Congress chose to dilute some of these proposals and roll back others altogether, thereby gutting a once promising bill.

American demographics are shifting significantly and our transportation habits and needs are changing too. The new generation of Millennials — all those kids you see in your neighborhood biking and walking or staring at their smartphones on the bus — are driving less than the previous generation, and 25 percent less than people 10 years older than them.* Within three years, over 15 million Americans above the age of 65 – for whom transportation options are essential and even life-saving – will live in communities where public transportation is poor or woefully insufficient. As Baby Boomers age, this number will only get bigger. And racial minorities, who will be the country’s majority in a few decades, are four times more likely to use public transportation to commute to work. These are the Americans we should be thinking about and building 21st century infrastructure for, yet we continue to fund and build the wrong things – highways – focusing on the needs of the loudest lobby rather than the needs of the next generation of Americans.

Cities like Los Angeles aren’t waiting for Congress. The state is creating community strategies that will boost public transit, walking and biking investment and concentrate housing near public transit. If the Los Angles plan, which the Rockefeller Foundation helped support, is implemented by 2035, 87 percent of housing will be within a half a mile of public transit. Working families will save an average of $3,000 a year on transportation. 

This is what the people want. In fact, in 2008 the voters of Los Angeles decided to tax themselves and raise $40 billion to build out the city’s transit system. While cities like L.A. are taking the initiative, many still rely on federal transportation dollars to make plans like this happen, and that requires Congress to focus spending on our real transportation needs.

America is also being left behind by the rest of the world. Developed countries are committing billions of dollars in 21st century transportation and infrastructure spending. At the recent UN conference on sustainability and development in Rio, the eight largest multilateral development banks committed to lending $175 billion over the next decade to mass transit projects in the developing world, both increasing access to opportunity and reducing pollution.   

Despite the round of self-congratulation we are likely to hear from Congress, a compromise is not a win if it doesn’t give us the transportation system we actually need to fit our needs and lifestyles. Transportation rarely comes up as a hot button issue; it is rarely fodder for big presidential debates or the dynamic conversations on morning TV or radio.  But access to affordable transportation is probably one of the most fundamental issues in your life.

So whether you are driving on I-15 in Salt Lake City, riding the 6 train in Manhattan, or sitting in traffic trying to get over the Brent Spence Bridge in Cincinnati, Ohio – remind Congress that their work isn’t nearly done yet and that transportation matters.

*An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated this fact.

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