Today, with 8.2 million people unemployed and the average duration of unemployment lasting over 20 weeks - the worst in two decades - spending federal transportation dollars effectively should be an important component of boosting the economy.13 Public transportation plays more of a direct role economically than one might expect. According to the Bureau of Economic Affairs, it is the same share of the national Gross Domestic Product as each of the following: coal and metal mining; furniture and fixture manufacturing; textiles; apparel; or tobacco.14 In 2001, "Local and Interurban Passenger Transit" represented a $19.1 billion share of the Gross Domestic Product.
Yet talk of using transportation dollars to put people to work tends to focus almost exclusively on highway construction jobs. Closer examination, however, reveals that transit projects tend to do better than highway projects when it comes to creating jobs. In a 2004 study, the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP) investigated the job returns from investment in transit projects versus highway and bridge projects. The study found that for every $1.25 billion spent on new public transportation projects, nearly 51,300 people are employed.15 By contrast, only 43,200 are employed per every $1.25 billion spent on new roads and bridges. The STPP data shows that investment in public transportation creates 19 percent more jobs than new road or bridge projects.16
Transit Brings Lucrative Development
Transportation creates jobs not only through new construction, maintenance and operation, but also through development and revitalization that occurs as a result of new or improved transportation systems. Public transportation, particularly rail, spurs "transit-oriented development" that helps create a vibrant environment where people can live, work, shop, and use public transportation with ease.
In the Washington, DC area, the public transportation system (Metro) has generated nearly $15 billion in surrounding private development. Between 1980 and 1990, 40 percent of the region's retail and office space was built within walking distance of a Metro station.17 This has led to lively corridors with plentiful restaurants, shops, offices and residences in places like Alexandria, Clarendon and Arlington, Virginia; Bethesda and Silver Spring, Maryland; and the heart of Washington, DC.
The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) notes that demand for these transit-oriented neighborhoods far outpaces the supply, and cites studies showing that 30 percent of housing demand is for such communities while less than 2 percent of new housing is put in these areas. APTA states, "Real estate experts and demographers have … concluded the supply of TOD-style living environments, focused on high-quality public transportation, lags far behind demand."18 APTA also calculates that the retail market benefits, because for every $10 million invested in public transit, they gauge that local business sales increase by $30 million.19
In Dallas/Fort Worth, APTA asserts that "more than $922 million worth of mixed-use projects have recently emerged along the Dallas DART light rail system, bringing total DART-related development to more than $1 billion."20 In St. Louis, transit-oriented development and revitalization has created a surge of $1 billion in property values around their light rail stations since opening in 1993.21 Tampa Bay's HARTline bus system has helped spark redevelopment and renovation worth more than $75 million near the city's transit center.22 Local governments are clearly seeing the benefits of public transportation as an economic engine, which is one reason so many localities are clamoring for new transit projects.
At the same time revitalization is spurred, however, localities must develop strategies to ensure that affordable housing is preserved. If transit-oriented development is going to work at its best, those struggling at the lowest economic rungs must not be excluded from the benefits.
Labor and Business Groups Embracing Transit
Labor unions are increasingly embracing smart growth and public transportation as they realize the beneficial effects of both on job growth. In a recent study titled The Jobs Are Back in Town: Urban Smart Growth and Construction Employment, Good Jobs First found that "smart growth is in many ways better than sprawl in creating employment for workers who build residential and commercial structures as well as transportation infrastructure."23
Labor leaders like Jerry Butkiewicz, Secretary-Treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, are finding this true, and are increasingly supporting smart growth. USA Today notes "the building trades unions, usually wary of 'smart growth' policies, have become convinced that those development practices hold potential for more jobs and better jobs than sprawl does."24
In the Washington, DC region, the AFL-CIO's Metropolitan Washington Council has vocally supported the proposed "Purple Line" that would link spokes of the existing Metrorail system in suburban Maryland. In addition, the Maryland/DC AFL-CIO, two UFCW locals, the Amalgamated Transit Union local, and the Washington DC Building and Construction Trades Council all support building the Purple Line because of its projected economic benefits.
Business, too, is joining with labor in the call for public transportation. They understand that investment in public transportation infrastructure brings transit-oriented development that creates more jobs, vitality and a better business climate. Business leaders representing a half-dozen chambers of commerce and other business organizations stood alongside labor leaders as the President of the Greater Washington Board of Trade noted of the Purple Line, "Transit-oriented development improves our quality of life by giving us alternatives to driving, as well as additional housing and commercial options clustered around transit. And clearly, transit-oriented development spurs economic activity."25
In Cincinnati, similar coalitions have emerged around light rail, bringing together the Cincinnati AFL-CIO Labor Council, several Chambers of Commerce, and corporations like Proctor and Gamble and Cintas. Labor and business groups teamed up in Salt Lake City to win a referendum to extend light rail in that city, with the Utah AFL-CIO, the Downtown Alliance, and Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce endorsing the ballot measure. Houston voters in 2003 approved a plan to build 8 miles of commuter rail, 72 miles of light rail, and a 50 percent increase in bus service. The $640 million bond measure to begin this process by building 22 miles of the light rail project and expand bus service was backed by the Harris County AFL-CIO and business interests including the Houston Association of Realtors, Greater Houston Partnership, and Central Houston, Inc.
It is becoming more and more clear how public transportation projects are good for a sagging economy. Considering the construction jobs associated with building public transportation infrastructure and new transit-oriented development, in addition to the jobs associated with new retail areas and in maintenance and operation, transit is one of the best investments this nation can make from a jobs perspective. Not all federal spending can boast the economic benefits that transit brings. According to APTA's report, Dollars & Sense: The Economic Case for Public Transportation in America, "Every dollar taxpayers invest in public transportation generates $6 or more in economic returns."26
Top right: Photo courtesy Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority; used with permission.
Up to Top
Top left: photo courtesy www.lightrail.com; used with permission.