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Roll Call

Riding the (Metro) Rails

Few Members of Congress Take Public Transit Regularly

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

The man to your left on the Metro this morning, the one reading a spy novel? 

That could’ve been Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), who rides the red and blue or orange lines every morning that Congress is in session.

The man balancing against the car doors, his Express opened to the sports page?

That might’ve been Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.), taking the orange line from his home in Eastern Market.

And you may have seen Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) on his way in from a meeting in his district, answering emails on his BlackBerry.

These three Members of Congress aren’t the only lawmakers who ride the Metro frequently, but they’re part of a fairly small caucus. Although Congress is in charge of allocating funds to D.C.’s Metro system, few Members hop on the blue or orange lines at Capitol South Metro Station at the end of the day, opting instead to drive — sometimes hundreds of miles — home.

Those who do ride are loyal to the system, despite its many service hiccups and never-ending track maintenance.

“I’ve been here for 20 years, and I’ve been riding the Metro for 20 years,” Pastor said. He’ll often explore the city on the Metro if Congress gets out early, taking the train to restaurants in Adams Morgan and Bethesda, Md. Pastor also takes the Circulator, when it’s available, and he tends to hop on a bus or train if he’s home and a vote is called at the Capitol. Pastor said he’d recommend the Metro to visitors to the District and Members of Congress alike.

“It’s very safe accommodations,” he said. “If you want to know what the city is really like, ride the Metro or a public bus.”

Larsen said there’s no question for him about whether to Metro or drive from his home each morning. His wife usually needs the family car, but even if he had access to a car, he’d still ride the red line.

“Being honked at, screamed at, yelled at while driving in D.C. is not something I miss,” he said.

But Metro, and public transportation systems nationwide, often experiences a disconnect between the funding that it needs and the funding offered by the federal government. Federal funding for public transit has steadily increased since the mid-1980s, when a portion of the Highway Trust Fund was set aside for transit nationwide. 

But as ridership increases and old systems decay, more funding than ever before will be required in upcoming years to support public transit.

“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.

“At the end of the day, it’s still a situation to look at getting the maximum utility out of the dollars that we spend and move people around in the most efficient way possible,” he said.

Still, it’s a tough sell in a Congressional environment focused on spending cuts. 

“Congress is, unfortunately, stepping away from a robust federal investment in our public transit system, to our detriment,” Larsen said.

But it’s not just Metro that’s hurting for funds — the likelihood of Congress passing the APTA’s proposed reauthorization at a time when government is aiming to cut spending is slim. The chasm between what’s needed and what will likely be spent, Dean said, harms America’s future.

“Our nation’s infrastructure is crumbling, and for us to remain competitive into the future, we need to take a different look at the ways that we invest in all of our transportation infrastructure,” he said.

Correction: July 22, 2011

The article incorrectly stated the availability of public transit in the United States. Forty-six percent of American households do not have access to public transit.

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