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Derrick Z. Jackson

The transformation of transportation

By Derrick Z. Jackson
February 24, 2009
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IN THE half-month since the Senate nearly slashed mass transit from the stimulus bill, yet more locales broke ridership records from coast to coast. The New York City subway system moved 1.62 billion people last year, the most since 1950. Combined with buses, the city moved 2.37 billion people, the most since 1965. The Metro-North rail that services the suburbs outside New York carried a record 84 million passengers.

In the Midwest, the Madison, Wis., bus system recorded 13.4 million rides last year, the highest since 1979. Chicago's suburban bus system carried 40 million riders last year, the highest since 1991. Minneapolis/St. Paul's suburban bus system carried a record 2.6 million riders.

In the Pacific Northwest, the Amtrak Cascades line from Portland to Seattle set a new record with a 14.4 percent increase. In the South, ridership for the Piedmont train between Charlotte and Raleigh was up 30.8 percent last year.

This was on top of records announced earlier this year by other systems, including our own MBTA. It clearly factored into the Obama administration's 11th-hour rescue of mass transit in the final stimulus bill. The bill provides $17.7 billion for mass transit, high-speed rail, and Amtrak. The final budget request by Bush for these three items totaled $11.2 billion.

Compared with the last eight years of the Bush administration, this is a miracle shift of mindset. Mass transit and high-speed rail were given a massive upgrade in their share of transportation spending. In the last federal budget, the government gave highways four times more money than mass transit. The stimulus brings the ratio under 2-to-1. Compared with how some Republicans and the Bush administration kept trying to kill Amtrak, Obama's new Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood nearly made transit advocates faint by saying the stimulus funding will "transform intercity transportation in America, reduce our carbon footprint, relieve congestion on the roads and in the skies, and take advantage of a mode of transportation that has already benefited Europe and Japan for many years."

For the full transformation of transportation, Obama must move more mountains of mindset. For instance, it makes no sense to give General Motors and Chrysler an additional $21.6 billion in bailouts on top of their previous $17.4 billion, when they are cutting 50,000 jobs and still have not offered a credible plan for a fuel-efficient future. The administration should cut off the cash and let Ford, and the American plants of Toyota, Nissan, and Honda, salvage any GM and Chrysler assets valuable to them. Obama should instead invest the bailout billions into transportation that moves billions of people, and creates several times more jobs than what GM and Chrysler say they will lose.

According to University of Massachusetts economist Robert Pollin, who is a consultant to the Department of Energy, every $1 billion in clean or green energy industries creates 17,000 jobs, compared with 5,500 jobs in the oil, coal, and gas sector (and by extension the auto industry). Mass transit creates even more jobs, 22,000 for every $1 billion invested, needing many people to build and maintain it. Pollin said the job creation for mass transit is 70 percent more than for defense spending and 30-to-40 percent more than for a tax cut.

Pollin himself is not ready to say GM or Chrysler should die. "It's so frustrating because there are so many innocent people involved in the auto industry, the workers, the suppliers," he said. "The level of fragility is perhaps even worse than 1929. As opposed to 1929, we know what we're doing and it still isn't working. Perhaps we've got to let them limp through for the next year or two. But they need new management."

But at some point very soon, Obama must decide that limping is not enough to keep up with a nation whose commuters and even vacationers are radically rethinking transportation. From New York to Madison, from North Carolina to Seattle, people are not clamoring for new Cadillacs. They want the buses and trains of a new America to run on time.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

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