06/15/2008 02:21 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tackling Higher Energy Prices, One Subway Line at the Time

These are heady days for mass transit. As gas prices continue their inexorable rise, public transit ridership has experienced its own mini-boom, with cities nationwide reporting record numbers. And we're not just talking about your usual transit-friendly metropolises (i.e. Seattle, San Francisco or Portland) this time: According to the American Public Transport Association, some of the biggest gains -- up to 10 or 15 percent above last year's numbers -- have taken place in cities in the West and South with vibrant car cultures.

washington d.c. metro

In theory, of course, this is great news. As any longtime advocate of public transportation will tell you, subways and buses are a convenient, eco-friendly way to tackle congestion and higher energy prices. The effects have already been noticeable: Emissions dropped 9 million metric tons during the first three months of 2008 as a result of people driving less.

Ironically, however, the fact that more people are now opting to dump their hulking SUVs in favor of jumping on the light rail line could doom public transit -- for the simple reasons that it's primarily funded by sales and property taxes, both of which have tumbled in recent months, and that, like other modes of transportation, it needs fuel. For example, the price of diesel, the main fuel source used in bus systems, has soared over 40 percent since the beginning of the year. The funding shortfalls have been aggravated by skimpy government budgets and higher steel prices, which have made expansions needed to meet rising demand much costlier.

The problems are only expected to get worse as gas prices continue to increase. Public transit operators are now fretting that long lines and cut services could discourage some new users from making the switch. Even faithful users, disgruntled by higher fares, crowded conditions and longer waits, could eventually be turned away. The only solution, transportation experts and operators argue, is for the federal government to step in and increase its funding. So why the deafening silence from our elected representatives?

As Ryan Avent recently put it, it could partly be a matter of perception:

Transit systems are widely seen as dirty, slow, unreliable, and inconvenient relative to automobiles. Romm suggested to me that transit is seen as "not sexy." When folks imagine a greener future, visions of electric cars and solar panels abound. No one thinks of a humble subway car rumbling through dark, century-old tracks beneath Manhattan.

Transit is also widely, and correctly, regarded as disproportionately benefiting the residents of large urban areas and lower income households, and political mathematics are seldom friendly to proposals seen as "urban." Highway money is welcomed anywhere, but transit is considered a highly localized solution. Within metropolitan areas, transit funding often remains controversial, as exurban and highway-dependent jurisdictions feud with leaders from denser areas over the viability of new transit investments.

Simply put: Legislators aren't willing to expend their precious political capital on an issue that they don't think will yield much in way of electoral reward. Or, as Paul Krugman recently explained, we may not yet, as a society, be ready to make the choices necessary to embrace a mass transit-oriented lifestyle -- one in which dense, urban middle-class neighborhoods are the norm and sprawling suburban neighborhoods the bare exception.

What can be done? As many have already put it (in much more eloquent terms than I), boosting our (dilapidated) infrastructure funding should be our number one priority. We should also encourage more efficient urban planning and higher-density living, as Krugman argues. First and foremost, we should be pressuring our legislators to allocate more funds to public transit -- or, at the very least, to stop the bloodletting. Further neglecting our financial support for public transit will not only harm our infrastructure -- it will hurt this country's growth prospects and competitiveness, as a recent WaPo editorial put it:

Washington's inattention to public transportation is bipartisan and longstanding. Congress and the Bush administration have done little to fix it. In the omnibus transportation bill signed in 2005 (covering the period from 2003 to 2008), annual funding for mass transit is targeted at around $10 billion, of which about $7 billion goes to capital infrastructure projects. Add that to state and local funding, and the nation's total capital spending on transit amounts to roughly $13 billion annually. But even by the administration's conservative estimates, the minimum need is closer to $20 billion. And the American Public Transportation Association reckons $45 billion to $60 billion annually would be optimal to replace and modernize aging buses, facilities, subways and rail systems. That's quite a gap.

Perhaps the best, and most obvious, argument in favor of more public transit funding is that it will mitigate the impacts of climate change by significantly cutting the amount of emissions associated with transportation.