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Amy Traub

Congress Catches the Bus

Just about every politician out there would like to find the quick fix for the soaring gasoline prices that are straining the budgets of America’s current and aspiring middle class. We know a gas tax “holiday” a la John McCain won’t have any real impact on consumers. We know a miscellany of proposed new locations to drill for oil won’t help for years – if ever. And while those stimulus checks may have been somewhat useful in offsetting the prices at the pump, Americans facing hard times also need the cash to pay for the rising price of everything else under the sun. So the question remains: how are we going to get to work today – and tomorrow – without the cost of the commute eating a huge chunk out of the paycheck?

For a growing number of Americans, the answer is to hop the train. “Even regions that have traditionally resisted giving up cars and have limited access to mass transit are reporting a surge in public transportation use,” according to CNN. And it’s little wonder. Even before the price of gas reached its current peak, American households that relied on public transportation saved an average of $6,251 a year compared to a two-car household without transit access. (pdf) These days the commuter train makes more sense than ever.

So transit ridership is up, but that presents its own challenges. How can transit systems keep up with the increased demand at a time of declining public revenues? Beyond that, how can systems expand to better serve besieged drivers who live nowhere near the tracks? Here’s where those eager politicians can actually do something useful. State and local budgets are strapped (just ask Mayor Karl Dean of Nashville) but the feds can stimulate the economy, help middle-class Americans get to work affordably, and reduce greenhouse gases and other air pollution by providing more funding for mass transit.

That’s just what the House has done with the recently passed Saving Energy Through Public Transportation Act. According to our analysis on, the bill “authorizes $1.7 billion in funds for Fiscal Year 2008 and Fiscal Year 2009 for public transit agencies to reduce fares and expand services. Additionally, the legislation increases the federal government’s share of the cost for grants for alternative fuel transit equipment from 90% to 100% and for constructing additional parking facilities at end-of-the-line stations from 80% to 100%.” The hitch is that the bill is an authorization, not an actual appropriation of federal funds. That means Congress hasn’t made the difficult choices about how – or if – they will offset the increased spending. And we still lack the comprehensive national transportation plan the country needs. Still, after years of subsidizing costly and polluting car travel, it’s good to see Congress on the right track.

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Posted at 12:01 PM, Jul 17, 2008 in Congress | Energy & Environment | Infrastructure | Middle-class squeeze | | Transportation | public services
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