Congress must increase transit funding and help get America to work

The fact is, when it comes to transit, America is not at the head of the class by any means. According to the infrastructure report card released earlier this year by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), our nation’s public transit systems merit a “D” grade for lack of investment.

Instead of modernizing and expanding service to meet growing demand, America’s transit systems are spending their limited resources shoring up outdated subway stationsand repairing rail cars from the 1970s. That’s because the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for road and transit programs, is nearing insolvency and the patchwork solutions that legislators have passed since the last federal transportation bill expired in 2009 have been woefully inadequate.

Given the importance of transit to the long-term health of our nation’s economy and its power to drive job growth and economic development, Congress’ inaction on this issue is unacceptable.

A bipartisan group in the U.S. House of Representatives has introduced legislation to preserve tax credit parity for transit riders. We now need our Congressional leaders to act in the same spirit and forge a compromise on a long-term solution to adequately finance American’s public transportation systems.

According to the Federal Transit Administration, our country currently needs $78 billion in critical transit repairs and improvements. Even after that backlog is cleared, the annual investment needed to keep our transit infrastructure in a state of good repair is $14.4 billion. Once the current funding authorization – MAP-21 – expires in 2014, there’s no telling how much farther behind we’ll fall.

In response to this crisis, the Northeastern Illinois Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) has joined with other transit agencies across the nation to launch Getting America to Work, a broad-based coalition that includes councils of government, as well as environmental, business and labor groups, that support consistent and adequate investment in public transit.

Getting America to Work’s mission is simple: ensure our leaders in Congress understand that transit funding is not just a local issue. It is a national priority and it demands a national response.

The consequences of failure to act can be devastating. Shorting transit funding is like putting off an appointment with a mechanic: you may save money now, but your problems only become bigger and more expensive later. Deferred maintenance of our nation’s transit systems leads to increased operating costs; when funding is directed to repairs, service improvements and expansion go unrealized. And, like a used car, it takes more money to operate and maintain existing assets the older they get.

Even as transit systems deteriorate, demand for their services is growing. Nationally, transit ridership is up 9.1 percent over the past decade. In Chicago, ridership throughout the RTA’s region is at a 20-year high. Meanwhile, the backlog of capital projects continues to grow.

Inadequate investment in public transportation affects far more than just transit systems and their riders; it also affects the fiscal health of our nation. In 2010 alone, the American economy lost an estimated $90 billion due to lack of spending on transit, according to the ASCE’s report. Inefficiencies in public transportation hinder our ability to move workers, goods and services effectively; cause massive productivity losses; and make it harder for us to compete on the global stage. Transit shortfalls have also forced more cars onto the road, leading to freight bottlenecks, longer commutes and more air pollution.

Countless studies have shown public transportation systems benefit everything from quality of life to property values. They make regions more affordable, attract employers, promote good health, and create jobs. Every dollar spent on transit generates an economic return of four to one, and every $1 billion of capital spending on transit projects creates 24,000 jobs.

We understand members of Congress have concerns about increasing funding in a time of limited resources. But in this case, by not investing, we are ensuring larger costs down the road. Increased transit funding will pay dividends many times over for our communities, our businesses and our country. We need our Congressional leaders to commit to ensuring stable benefits and a predictable, adequate funding stream for transit so America can once again take its rightful place at the head of the class.

Costello is executive director of the Northeastern Illinois Regional Transportation Authority.