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Surface Transportation Increase Unlikely -- Despite Infrastructure Needs, Public Transit Wants

Mark Wilson/Getty Images File Photo
Foxx defended the 62 percent increase the Obama administration wants for transit spending. It is unlikely to be taken up by Congress due to partisan tensions and election-year jockeying.

“Clearly, people want better transportation options and it should be a national priority to expand public transit service,” Melaniphy said.

Getting new transit projects off the ground hasn’t been an easy lift for states and cities that want them. Spending austerity across all local, state and federal governments have only exacerbated the transit budget crunch.

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the subway, bus, ferry and commuter rail systems that serve the nation’s largest city, has been struggling for years to cobble together enough money to build a new subway line beneath Second Avenue on Manhattan’s east side, one of the most dense urban areas in the world.

It would be the first such project since the 1940s, but its long-term viability isn’t yet assured: A two-mile, three-station Phase One is expected to open in the next two years.

But the remainder of the 8.5-mile project, stretching down into lower Manhattan with another 13 underground stations, still doesn’t have firm funding sources for its estimated $17 billion total cost, which clouds the timeline of when its later phases might be completed.

Other states, such as Virginia, have increasingly looked to alternative financing to pay for expensive transit projects.

In the Old Dominion’s sprawling northern suburbs, lawmakers turned to the federal Transportation Department’s Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan program to help finance construction of the final phase of a new Silver Line that will serve the far-flung Dulles International Airport and surrounding neighborhoods, about 25 miles west of downtown Washington.

Rep. James P. Moran, D-Va., who represents a swath of suburbs that will be served by the new line, said building the new line was a sensible use of tolls collected on the adjacent expressway that serves the airport, which will gradually pay back the federal loan.

“Paving our way out of the worst traffic in the nation is impossible,” Moran said. “This extension is critical to reducing congestion, commuting time and gas consumption.”

The need to diversify federal spending on modes other than roads isn’t lost on Republicans, either. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., hasn’t championed transit spending with the same enthusiasm as some of his Democratic counterparts. But he has recognized that simply continuing to expand roadways won’t alleviate congestion that plagues densely developed areas in the Northeast, where he has suggested drawing investment to intercity rail would help reduce the need for new lanes on I-95, the traffic-choked road that connects Washington to Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

Transit Shift

The latest data on Americans’ driving habits suggests more transit spending would be welcome.

The Federal Highway Administration in February reported that total vehicle miles traveled — a tally of all the miles driven by all vehicles in the country — in 2013 increased just less than 1 percent, while that tally, when divided by the country’s population, actually dropped for the ninth year in a row.

By that count, there was a decline from 9,402 miles per capita driven in 2013, down from 9,412 miles per capita driven in 2012.

But not everyone is in favor of expanding spending beyond roads.

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