Can mass transit survive in the US?
© Greg Nash

As Washingtonians suffer though massive, unprecedented shutdowns of the Metrorail system this summer for urgent repair work made necessary by years of neglect and mismanagement, fingers have been pointed in every direction, often with an aim to score political points. 

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Union opponents have pointed to a toxic employee culture at Metro that compromises efficiency, competence and safety. They have a point. All evidence points to years of dysfunctional management at Metro, a scandalous lack of accountability and widespread demoralization among those who sought reform. But the tone of unaccountability was set by a local political class unwilling or unable to make the tough fiscal and administrative decisions necessary to maintain and upgrade the system over time.

The problem in the case of the Washington, D.C. Metro system is complicated by the three political jurisdictions involved, the lack of decision-making authority and the absence of a dedicated funding stream — but even in other cities like New York and Boston where these problems are not so acute, we see old mass transit systems in disrepair and the lack of political will to do anything effective to address the crisis. President Obama was precisely correct when referring to the Metro meltdown in Washington:

"[I]t is just one more example of the underinvestments that have been made. ... And in many parts of the country, we're still relying on systems that were built 30, 50, in some cases 100 years ago. And the reason we've been neglecting them is not because we don't know how to fix them. It's not because people haven't been aware of the need. We've known for years now that we're a trillion or two trillion dollars short in terms of necessary infrastructure repair."

Strangely enough, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald TrumpConway: Trump doesn't think he's lying on voter fraud, wiretap claims 'The Simpsons' turned down Trump guest appearance on show: producer GOP consultant: Kid Rock would be 'prohibitive favorite' if he enters Michigan Senate race MORE appears to be entirely in agreement with that assessment, having noted that "our airports, bridges, water tunnels, power grids, rail systems — our nation's entire infrastructure is crumbling, and we aren't doing anything about it." More specifically, our political leaders seem unwilling or unable to do anything about it. We can't seem to maintain the systems we have, and new transportation projects move at a glacial pace and never procure adequate funding so as to be implemented in a timely and cost-efficient manner.

The reasons for this paralysis have to do with both ideological rigidity and corruption. For those wedded to strict laissez-faire analysis (who have gained increasing sway over public policy in recent decades), investment in public that works as a prerequisite to economic development is a concept impossible to acknowledge, much less endorse. This, despite the fact that Republican presidents from Lincoln to Eisenhower were enthusiastic advocates of investment in infrastructure as a necessary condition of economic growth — and history proved them entirely correct in that judgement. But there is simply no room in the modern conservative worldview for the idea that adequate taxation for infrastructure that we all rely on is a prerequisite of a dynamic, free economy.

Public transportation is a perfect example of how ideologically based myths and misconceptions have distorted policy. In the 1940s and '50s, big oil and the auto industry conspired to destroy extensive streetcar systems in every major city in the United States, frequently employing the argument that while public transportation required major public subsidies, automobile travel was somehow an expression in individual choice and the invisible hand of the market. In truth, roads were, and remain, far more heavily subsidized than rails or any form of public transportation, but the argument seemed to resonate, particularly among free-market advocates. Today, the GOP fights to cut funding for Amtrak and opposes Department of Transportation spending on mass transit with the argument that they shouldn't survive if they have to be propped up by tax dollars. At this point, most conservatives can't even bring themselves to vote for adequate highway funding by means of a gas tax because it would go against the blanket principle of no tax increases, preferring instead to entertain the notion of relying on more tolls and public-private partnerships that might address decaying roads and bridges at some unspecified future date.

Local politicians, too, seem to lack the vision and fortitude to make the argument for consistent and sufficient funding to maintain and expand public transportation. The D.C. streetcar project is a good example: Due to fits and starts of incongruous planning, the project of building a 2.2-mile line from the back of Union Station to the Anacostia River in Northeast was absurdly behind schedule and overbudget. Yet despite the waste, inefficiency, and poor planning on the part of the District government in implementing the streetcar thus far, it serves a crying need for an alternative means of public transport on the most overcrowded Metrobus corridor in the city. Despite the fact that the D.C. government couldn't have done a worse job in getting the streetcar up and running, the revival of light rail has proved a popular success for residents in the neighborhood, and with any semblance of political leadership it would be an obvious priority to expand streetcar service to other congested corridors underserved by Metrorail and where buses are overcrowded and frequently unboardable. A recent study found that the originally proposed 37-mile streetcar system for the District would generate between $10 billion and $15 billion in benefits to the city (new development, increased property tax collections on more valuable land, etc.). But because of all the bad press and negative feeling generated by the way the project was carried out, expansion in the near future seems unlikely.

Perhaps we should look to the past for a way forward. Until the 1940s, Washington had the best streetcar system in the nation, owned and operated by the North American Company, a public utility holding company. The anti-speculative Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 required North American to sell off the streetcar in 1946 after losing a Supreme Court decision, and then the D.C. Department of Highways, the national highway lobby, the auto industry and their congressional allies required new owners to replace streetcars with buses starting in 1956. Washington's mass transit ridership went into a downward spiral for the next 20 years until the advent of Metro's first rail-operating segment. Electric utilities, real estate developers and others with an interest in revitalizing city neighborhoods could once again be a source of funding for building and even operating a light-rail system, if remnants of the antiquated act were not holding them back. Policymakers might add further sweeteners to make such investment more profitable, like "green" tax credits for building and operating electric transit lines, long-term contracts for utilities providing electricity for streetcar and light-rail operations, and tying other city government power contract to utilities helping pay for new electric rail systems.

Addressing the public transportation crisis is going to require innovative policy ideas and political leadership that is sorely lacking at this juncture. But it will also require a new recognition of the truth that investment in essential infrastructure, including transportation, is essential to get the country back on a track to robust economic growth.

This piece was updated on Wednesday, June 29 at 9:35 a.m.

Robertson is CEO of Crispin Solutions, a public affairs and communications consulting firm.