#InvestNow: The Increasing Efficiency of Public Transportation
There are numerous reasons Congress should invest in public transportation. One of the most important is that public transportation projects and transit systems themselves are becoming more cost-efficient.
Investment in public transportation pays dividends by improving communities and the lives of millions of people—by connecting people to jobs, education, healthcare, and friends and family. We see benefits as well for our environment because public transportation helps reduce air pollution. We can bring these benefits to more communities with increasing speed and cost-efficiency because of improvements in vehicle technology, financing, and how government works.
Innovation and Technology
Innovations in information technology, vehicle design, and energy efficiency are all improving the performance of public transportation systems. The positive results include reductions in fuel costs and air pollution.
Examples can be found around the country—in large cities and smaller communities. Dallas’s DART system, for instance, is converting to a bus fleet that runs entirely on compressed natural gas (CNG). DART estimates that it will save $120 million in fuel costs over the next decade. Thanks in part to federal Clean Cities Grants—provided by the Department of Energy—smaller transit systems in Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and several other states have added fuel- and cost-saving buses to their fleets as well.
While the federal government is the largest single funder of American public transportation projects, states and localities also pay a significant portion of costs. Many struggle to raise funds or end up incurring higher financing charges, which drive up a project’s overall costs. Financing challenges can sometimes stop public transportation projects from moving forward altogether.
To address this challenge, in 2012, Congress expanded a loan program originally authorized under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA). This program has helped speed transit projects, provided access to low loan rates, and saved local taxpayer dollars. However, while this loan program has been successful, its benefits have only reached 18 states. Long-term comprehensive transportation legislation would likely expand this loan program, enabling its benefits to reach more American communities.
In future blog posts, we’ll look more closely at another trend that is helping bring public transportation to more communities more quickly—public/private partnerships, or PPP financing.
As the saying goes, time is money. Public transportation projects can save money if reviews, approvals, and construction can proceed on an expedited schedule. While large-scale public transportation projects can take years or even decades to complete, government agencies are now piloting programs to speed up public transportation projects. These programs are testing concurrent reviews, expedited approvals, and collaborative decision-making. In one early success, the Los Angeles Metro system reduced the cost, community impact, and completion time of a light rail extension.
Transit systems and agencies are also improving project assessments and taking steps to ensure that investments are made in the best project proposals. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s TIGER program does just that—though funding still falls far short of demand.
Right now, the pieces are falling into place to revolutionize American public transportation. To be sure, there is always room for improvement, but we now have effective transportation technologies and project know-how to bring enhanced and expanded public transportation to more communities across the country. The main thing holding us back is political inaction in Washington.
In 2015, we will demand that Congress put aside partisan divisions and pass a long-term, comprehensive transportation bill that provides certainty for public transportation developments across the nation.