The Interstate I-35W bridge has collapsed in Minneapolis, and something else ought to collapse with it: the incessant, in-your-face, wholly indefensible ballyhoo that mass transit is America’s transportation salvation and therefore deserving of great, huge gobs of whatever public funding is available.
While a spiffy subway system or new light-rail line can be an urban enhancement occasionally worth some fraction or maybe even all of the huge cost, it’s an absurdity to think mass transit will solve traffic congestion or significantly reduce gasoline consumption, and meanwhile, this we know: The nation’s infrastructure is crumbling to the detriment of our daily coming and going, our economic future and our safety.
Sadly, as news reports are reminding us in the aftermath of the Minnesota tragedy, state and national politicians have often found it electorally rewarding to neglect necessary but dreary road and bridge maintenance if they can instead funnel the money to new, far-from-crucial but popular projects, often meaning mass transit, which makes the hearts of so many go pitter-patter.
A pertinent example pops up in a story in The New York Times. It tells us that Rep. James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who chairs a House committee on transportation and infrastructure, recently announced that the state was receiving $12 million in transportation goodies in an appropriations bill. Was any of this federal financing designated to fix the bridge that fell down? Of course not.
The Times says, “$10 million is slated for a new 40-mile commuter line to Minneapolis called the Northstar. The remaining $2 million is divided among a new bike and walking path and a few other projects, including highway work and interchange reconstruction.”
Hurrah for Oberstar is what many would say, it being something like holy writ in some quarters that we begin to shove all kinds of earth-threatening issues into a corner if we keep building commuter lines. But as Anthony Downs of Brookings Institution observes, even major increases in public transit projects will take you no more than inches in addressing the miles of problems some suggest they will fix.
Right now, something less than five percent of all commuters use public transit, and if you subtract New York from the equation, the figure goes down to 3.5 percent. Triple the capacity and somehow persuade commuters to take full advantage of it, and transit travel would climb to no more than 11 percent of total commuting during peak morning hours, Downs says.
In other words, at enormous cost and with endless subsidies, your impact on traffic congestion would be minimal, and in the meantime, the population continues to grow and people keep buying cars and living in the suburbs, deciding, as Downs tells us, that they will put up with the aggravations of waiting in traffic jams in order to enjoy other values that concern them more.
Gas reduction? Well, there would be some, naturally, if there were more mass transit use. But while high gas prices have caused larger than usual numbers of commuters to mass transit systems over the past year, it’s reported that the impact on gas prices has been zero. The vast majority of people have stuck to driving even when mass transit is available.
Mass transit isn’t the only issue in the failure to keep our infrastructure in shape. News stories note that Congress has gone absolutely wild in lavishing thousands of pointless earmark projects on local districts that have nothing to do with mass transit; when they were finally in control of the House and Senate, the nation’s “fiscally responsible” Republicans showed that their talent for waste was easily superior to that of the Democrats. Some complain of inadequate taxes, although a public reluctance to pony up more is easily understandable given governmental tendencies to fritter away hard-won earnings.
But whatever the other reasons, a faddish, almost irrational devotion to capital-intensive mass transit lines — even in low-density communities where they are clearly less efficient than cars that go directly from our driveways to our work places — has in fact competed with the common-sense need for taking care of an infrastructure that then can take care of us.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)