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Riding the (Metro) Rails

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Rep. Rob Wittman takes a blue line train to the Capitol South Metro Station on Friday.

“All the trends we see in the future point to a large growth in demand for public transportation,” explained Paul Dean, director of government relations for the American Public Transportation Association. Population growth in urban areas and rising gas prices, he said, coupled with an increasing national interest in greener forms of transportation, are likely to increase the burden on public transit in the upcoming decades.

With an average weekly ridership of more than 727,000 people on the Metro alone, the need for improved infrastructure has become increasingly pressing. Pastor said he’s seen evidence of age and increased use on the D.C. Metro over the two decades that he’s been riding the train.

“The infrastructure is getting older, the escalators are breaking down more often,” he said. “Obviously they’ve had problems with some of the equipment, but overall it’s a very efficient system for me. It just needs continual support.”

Pastor added that Metro particularly needs support because it transports so many federal workers to and from their jobs. 

The need for infrastructure improvements in public transit systems nationwide is part of the reason the APTA has recommended that the federal government increase the current Highway Trust Fund from $53 billion to $123 billion over the next six-year authorization period. 

Many Members of Congress support the increase in funding for public transit generally and for Metro specifically. Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), who rides Metro infrequently but is a supporter of public transit, said the United States would be worse off without it. 

“We would literally have gridlock. We’d be spending a lot more money because we’d have to have a lot more roads and bridges, and they’d be falling down a lot more quickly,” he said. 

Despite consistent increases in federal funding of public transit over the years, part of the disconnect between funding needed and funding allocated results from the fact that Members of Congress focus mainly on their constituents’ needs. According to the APTA, 46 percent of American households do not have access to public transit. And Larsen said it’s easy to understand why many Members don’t support funding systems that most of their constituents can’t access.

“You can usually tell where people are on issues by looking at where they’re from,” he said. 

Larsen added that he feels more informed about the issues facing public transit because he is a frequent rider and because he’s had experience on his local transit board back in Washington state.

Cardin also believes that it’s difficult to find funding for public transit because of the high prices attached to transit projects.

“You can have a sticker shock on [public transit projects],” he said. “You can build a road a lot of times cheaper than you can build a transit system, obviously, but transit systems accommodate a lot more people and keep our roads safer.”

Wittman said this is one of the aspects of public transit that needs to be highlighted in the funding debate — the bang for the government’s bucks.

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