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Bridging the Transportation Gap

As officials battle over stimulus funds and “shovel-ready” projects, they may be missing a golden opportunity to reform America’s transit system.

Americans tend to think about transportation in competitive terms: freeways versus subways, cars versus buses, rails versus airports. The debate on economic stimulus spending has certainly been argued along these lines. While state representatives and industrial groups advocate for “shovel-ready” projects such as new roads, bridges and tunnels, city planners and environmentalists tend to support investments in mass transit and rail. This divide — each mode of transportation with its own advocates, all fighting for funding — is not inevitable. As the Obama administration and the American people prepare to embark on a new wave of major public works initiatives, it’s more pressing than ever that we take advantage of this chance to fix a fragmented system.

Our messy transportation infrastructure is the result of a century of public policy, built right into the structure of transportation agencies at every level. When the government agencies overseeing mass transit and the agency building highways are separate and uncoordinated, they compete for money, and the public loses. It becomes less about getting there quickly and easily, and more about which interest group wins. The common belief that it’s “unfair” for drivers to help pay for mass transit — even when it reduces traffic congestion — reflects the way we manage transportation.

In a few cases, transportation policy has taken a different path, and the pragmatic need for mobility and access — getting around easily at a low cost — has led to an effective bridging of different types of transportation. It’s no coincidence that where this happened, we have the most extensive mass transportation systems in the United States today: metropolitan New York and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Since the 1950s, tolls from the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge have supported the region’s rapid transit system, including paying for a three-mile underwater tube for commuter trains. In 1969, revenue from the Golden Gate Bridge was dedicated to supporting buses and ferries. And as congestion worsened, voters began to understand the compelling relationship between traffic relief on local bridges and commuter rail service in the same corridor. Twice — in 1988 and in 2004 — Bay Area voters approved measures to extend bridge toll subsidies for mass transit. Today, a congestion-pricing scheme for San Francisco is winning public support because of its potential to strengthen mass transportation.

New York City, another success story, also underwent major changes in transportation policy in the 1960s. Leaders of two car-centric powerhouses in the area, the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA) and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, struck deals that included long-term commitments to supporting mass transportation with tolls. Governor Nelson Rockefeller won concessions on behalf of subways and commuter rail that helped New York become a financial and cultural center. For example, revenue from the Holland Tunnel supported the PATH system, which helped thousands of people commute to the World Trade Center. And tolls from the TBTA bridges revived the city’s subways in the 1980s.

It’s easy to argue that dense development made transit viable in these cities, but the relationship between land use and transportation is a two-way street. Without toll-funded transit, New York and San Francisco wouldn’t be the vibrant urban places they are today. As Americans become more and more enthusiastic about city life — as shown by strong demand for homes in walkable neighborhoods, even as property values in sprawling suburbs collapse — transportation policy that is unified rather than fragmented becomes even more important.

Right now, there is an opportunity for change. Transit ridership is at a 50-year high in the United States, despite the anemic state of most mass transportation systems. Metropolitan New York and the San Francisco Bay Area can be models for a new approach to the management of transportation — and, more importantly, for its funding. Revenue generated by congestion-pricing programs can help forge new, durable links across different modes of transportation, especially if money is dedicated to transit that improves driving conditions and presents a convenient, affordable alternative.

Let’s change the way we think about getting around, and start building transportation systems that serve the needs of people and places, not interest groups or bureaucracies.

Louise Nelson Dyble is associate director for Research at the Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy at USC. She is the author of Paying the Toll: Local Power, Regional Politics, and the Golden Gate Bridge (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

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