America's major metro regions may be on the verge of transit independence.
They tap federal aid when they can but increasingly find money for system expansion right at home. They're learning to get cities and suburbs on the same page as they prepare for a post-petroleum age.
And where they're not succeeding, anger is mounting. Take the Atlanta region, legendary for its traffic tie-ups. It added 2 million people in 20 years but built little new capacity, and now needs to invest $50 billion in its rails and roads. As recently as April, Georgia's legislature refused to let citizens of the region even vote on a sales-tax boost to finance transit lines and roadway expansion.
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“The business community is screaming for relief at the top of our voice,” says Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. He's not only urging early transportation investments but warning that “failure to invest would spell economic disaster for Georgia.”
The good news: Only a few other regions — metro Detroit, for example — are as stalemated as Atlanta. Indeed, just check what's happening elsewhere:
Houston, legendary capital of Big Oil, has decided to plunge ahead with building an integrated five-corridor light rail system. “With gas headed to $8 a gallon and oil to $200 a barrel,” said Council Member Peter Brown, “we have to rethink Houston as a happy motoring paradise.”
The Denver region continues to construct its ambitious 119-mile, $4.7 billion “FasTracks” system of light rail and commuter rail that voters decided, 58 percent to 42 percent, to fund in 2004.
Charlotte is celebrating 13,000-passengers-a-day patronage, 4,000 ahead of projections, on the first corridor of its Lynx rail system, launched last November.
The Seattle region's Sound Transit Board has just voted unanimously to put a 15-year mass transit package, including bus, commuter rail and a 53-mile regional light rail system, on this November's ballot. It's a daring move because just last autumn the region's voters turned down a combined highway-transit funding measure. But Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels is hailing the big rail expansion as the right response to high gas prices and rising congestion: “the right plan for us, our kids and our planet.”
This December, Phoenix opens a 20-mile light rail link from its downtown to neighboring Tempe and Mesa, using funds from a designated sales tax voters approved 2-1 in 2000.
And so it goes across the U.S. — check Dallas, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, Washington, Portland, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Norfolk and more. In amazing numbers, rail transit systems are either experiencing record ridership or expanding, or both.
There's a serious impediment right now: As public demand soars, so do fuel bills, triggering serious budget shortfalls for transit systems nationwide. About a fifth of rail and bus systems have been obliged to cut back service. And there's another cloud: fast-rising construction costs for new lines.
But the future path of metro rail systems in America is unquestionably upward, triggered by congestion, spiraling gas prices and citizen demand.
The regions smart enough to get past old city-suburb divisions, using local sales tax increases to fund expansions and rely less on cumbersome federal aid flows are making the fastest progress.
Well aware of that, the Atlanta chamber has consulted with and sponsored a series of field trips to other city regions that have successfully used local sales tax referendums for transportation expansions. “Our counterparts in St. Louis, San Diego, Charlotte, Salt Lake City, Phoenix have all gone through the same thing,” says Williams.
Now there are even signs that Georgia's wall of resistance to rail transit may be crumbling. Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, after six years of scorning any kind of transit, suddenly reversed course in June and endorsed a pilot commuter rail line south from Atlanta toward Macon.
It's up to regional leaders
A “Get Georgia Moving Coalition,” a powerful group of 60 organizations ranging from business to the Sierra Club, is pressing for transit lines and highway fixes. Support is even increasing in suburban Gwinnett County, long hostile to any kind of rail.
Political reality says few if any state legislatures will enact statewide taxes to finance metro transit systems. But they can give the green light to their metro regions to tax themselves. Then it's up to regional business and civic leaders, in this increasingly metropolitan nation, to make a sufficiently compelling case to city and suburban voters alike. With long commutes increasingly unaffordable, and with city-suburb antagonisms much milder than in past times, selling well-conceived regional transit plans should be achievable.
Indeed, why shouldn't these regions pay for themselves? They hold the vast majority of wealth in American society today. The time is at hand, the need overwhelming, for them to “go for it.”