Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was in town last week, lobbying as he has been for the last several months for lawmakers to get it together and pass a surface transportation bill. Villaraigosa has a specific reason for his tenacious advocacy, and it's not just that he works closely with the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. If Congress passes the $109 billion measure currently being debated in the Senate, Los Angeles would be able to accelerate as many as 12 local transportation projects.
Villaraigosa is championing a specific provision in the Senate bill that would give the Transportation Department expanded abilities to extend credit to local municipalities for "mega public transportation projects." It is part of Villaraigosa's America Fast Forward plan, which he says would create one million jobs in the construction and technical industries and generate $158 billion in total economic output.
Villaraigosa has some great ideas on project acceleration that have been echoed by the likes of President Obama and House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla. It is one of the major benefits to come if Congress actually passes a transportation bill this year. America Fast Forward focuses on public transit, which is not always at the top of rural lawmakers' priority list. But other than that, it's an idea most people like.
Is Villaraigosa right that simple financing fixes could speed up so many transit projects? Would the credit extensions in the Senate bill help other localities besides Los Angeles, including rural ones? Is it appropriate to focus so much attention on public transportation? What is holding up most transportation projects?
It's certainly noteworthy that ambitious, forward-thinking mayors are turning to transit as one of the best community-building mechanisms available. Apparently, winds of change are blowing in the USDOT as well. Administrator Rogoff of the Federal Transit Authority told the Transportation Equity Network's annual conference last week that he is working to increase the number of new bus rapid transit and light rail projects that FTA supports. He wants to support both transit-dependent riders and choice riders. When we as a nation invest in TIGER grants or the Sustainable Communities program, we're helping to create transit, jobs, and sustainable communities - goals we can all get behind.
In the meantime, riders are voting with their feet. According to the APTA study that was released today, 10.4 billion trips were taken on US public transit in 2011. This is the second highest annual ridership since 1957. Americans are choosing to take transit, even in cities that don't experience daunting traffic. In my hometown of St. Louis, light rail ridership increased by 10% over the last year. Surprisingly, rural communities experienced the biggest jump - in cities under 100,000, transit ridership increased by 5.4% according to ATPA.
When transit systems and other infrastructure projects are created, we need to ensure that any public-private partnership is accountable to the taxpayer. Senator Durbin and others are working to make public-private partnerships more transparent. It's a part of the equation that we just can't ignore. As the USPIRG points out, lax oversight could lead us down the road to another Enron.