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Federal green stimulus? Think Transit

The world watched closely Tuesday as the new Obama Administration took office, promising to work quickly with Congress to enact a stimulus package and to reengage in international climate negotiations.  Mass transit infrastructure is critical to these goals - for three reasons.

First, the new Administration, other countries desiring U.S. participation on climate efforts, and the climate trading industry, should support mass transit infrastructure spending as a permanent GHG reduction tool.  As U.S. States undertaking their own climate change reduction efforts have already discovered, land development patterns leading to increases in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) can undercut the benefits of vehicle and low carbon fuel content targets:  transportation accounts for 30% of GHG emissions nationwide.  The influential Center for American Progress recently noted, "we need to focus on reducing the miles we travel in vehicles with smart land use and transportation policy that works to promote greener communities with greater transportation options, including mass transit."   Indeed, increases in VMT can eliminate reduction progress from other capped sectors, so industries and entities interested in a cap-and-trade program must insist on a coherent U.S. transportation policy as well (as USCAP just did).

Second, spending on mass transit can have a significant stimulative effect on the economy as a whole.  Studies by the House Infrastructure and Transportation Committee have shown that every dollar spent on mass transit can lead to six dollars or more in economic growth.  And they're popular:  numerous transit measures were approved by voters in the States this past year.  According to the Environmental Defense Fund, every $1 billion in federal investment in transit can lead to 35,000 jobs.  The Surface Transportation Policy Project has pointed out that over 75% of new economy companies consider transit accessibility in choosing a new location.  Moreover, transit projects in U.S. cities have repeatedly been shown to lead to increased property values in the vicinity of the projects.  Highway spending does not lead to the same level of economic return, yet, traditionally, federal spending has favored highways over transit 4 to 1.  Cash-trapped local governments need the benefits that federal transit spending can bring them now.

Finally, of significant import to the incoming Administration and those who voted for it, transit projects have a stimulative effect that is equitable.  According to the Transportation Equity Network, construction jobs including those on highways are classically not evenly doled out to women or people of color, but jobs related to mass transit are more likely to be.  Mass transit projects create more continuing sources of revenue and can increase the tax bases of local governments in urban settings.  And once built, those projects are more likely to assist the lowest income members of a community in getting to work.  The Center for Transit Oriented Development recently demonstrated that the average American family spends more on transportation than on food, and in an auto-dependent neighborhood they will spend nearly as much as they do on housing.  In a transit-rich community, the cost is much lower.  Reducing transportation emissions also can mean life or death in disadvantaged communities:  in Los Angeles, 80% of the added air cancer risk is from tailpipes.

For all these reasons, transit should play a role in future cap and trade policy, either by becoming an available offset for public-private partnerships, or being by being the type of project funded by proceeds from carbon emission allowances, or both.  But right now federal spending comes first, while the U.S. House of Representatives and the Administration consider new stimulus and transportation bills.  Transportation bills are often heavily influenced by the requests from the transportation agencies in individual States, but this is one area where State Governors have not yet taken the lead on climate policy.  As a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth recently put it:  "State transportation departments are clearly still living in the past on environmental policy."  While fixing failing bridges is critical, and filling potholes on existing roads is good, starting this year, spending on new highway construction must take a back seat to mass transit.

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