Americans are finally realizing that our car culture is unsustainable. From both an environmental and economic perspective, we cannot continue consuming 7.5 billion barrels of petroleum products annually if we want to preserve our economic growth, maintain our national security and avert climate change.
This revelation is most apparent in the increasing use of mass transit options. Amtraks ridership on most of its routes is up 10 percent or more over last year. Metro bus and rail programs broke numerous records this year July 2008 saw more riders than any month in Metrorail history. It took skyrocketing gas prices to do it, but finally, people are driving less.
However, this new-found appreciation for mass transit may prove ephemeral if lawmakers fail to adjust their priorities. Metro announced in May that it was postponing over $100 million in upgrades in favor of working on a $489 million backlog of critical repairs.
In this time when people are seeing the value of transit, however, agencies should not have to choose between capital projects and maintenance. We need both.
Any regular Metro commuter can describe how packed cars are during peak hours. It is encouraging to see the ridership growth, but overcrowding and capacity issues are only going to get worse.
Metro should address rising demand with new stations, new service areas and capacity improvements. It will be possible only with increased funding.
But government seems unconcerned. While Metro officials are wisely studying their options, state and national legislators do nothing.
Virginias July transportation special session, which cost taxpayers more than $100,000, was utterly fruitless. The legislatures inaction leaves Metro without needed funding increases and endangers $1.5 billion in federal matching money expected to pass Congress.
Things are no better at the national level. Falling gas consumption is depriving the Highway Trust Fund of revenue needed to maintain roads. Infrastructure maintenance is important, but Transportation Secretary Mary Peterss plan to fix the multi-billion dollar shortfall is ill-considered. She proposes borrowing money from the national mass transit fund to pay for road work. Mass transit is too important to have its growth constrained in this manner.
Going forward, our state and nations elected officials must make a clear commitment to mass transit and be willing to innovate. They should provide generous funding for expansion of existing systems as well as money to bring mass transit to new places throughout the country.
It will not be cheap, but it is imperative to our economic growth, national security and environment. Over the next five years, the current 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax should be raised by one dollar per gallon.
When fully implemented, this increase will generate approximately $100 billion per year. Even after compensating for its regressive nature by rebating half of the new revenues to low- and middle-income citizens, the federal government will have billions to develop effective mass transit across the country.
New taxes are unpopular, but increasing transit options will spur development in many new areas. With the rebates, those who switch to more fuel-efficient vehicles may even end up better off than they were before the tax.
Gas will never return to its old lows. The government must act to create affordable, accessible alternatives.