Vacation Travelers Thrown Under the Bus

The American Public Transportation Association is projecting a 7 percent increase in the number of tourists taking public transportation this summer, thanks to stratospheric gasoline prices.

According to the transit trade group:

Thirty-five percent of those who will use public transit while visiting a city said they are more likely to use it this summer as opposed to last year. … The proportion of urban visitors this summer that will use public transportation is as high as 53 percent – a five percent increase – in New York City, the nation’s top destination for transit use by visitors. Almost all of the major city destinations are projected to see transit use by vacationers increase this summer.

That is on top of a pattern of record ridership on bus and rail systems across the country. Just this week, the manager of Washington D.C.’s Metro system told employees he was having contingency plans drawn up for how the already-jammed subway system could handle additional crowds if gas prices soared to $5 per gallon and beyond. Government agencies, which provide a sizable chunk of Metro riders, might have to implement flex-time schedules to spread out the passenger load, Metro manager John Catoe said.

On my post at FireDogLake, I use research from our “Making Sense 2008” project to point out how—contrary to the bleating of House conservatives about a “Pelosi premium”—we are reaping the whirlwind of seven years of Bush administration energy policies. What is happening to our mass transit systems is just one slice of the story.

The good news is that more people are using public transportation instead of their automobiles. It is no secret that if we had a national policy of well-funded public transit combined with transit-centered urban planning, we would be using a lot less gasoline, our skies would be cleaner and there would be a lot fewer stressed commuters, since even the people who absolutely refused to give up their daily drive would benefit from less-crowded roads.

But this is happening in spite of Bush administration policy. More ideologically disposed toward seeing public transportation as yet another pork-barrel project rather than a public good, the administration spent much of the last seven years coming up with excuses not to fund transportation projects rather than making public transportation part of a holistic energy policy.

As a result, we’re not prepared to meet the demand. A Surveys USA poll concludes that only 15 percent of Americans who own or lease a car have convenient mass transit options; roughly a third of Americans have no choice but to drive.

Four years ago, there could have been a bipartisan consensus on an approach that would have prepared us for this moment. Some leading members in both the House and Senate committees that deal with transportation policy had embraced the idea of a five-cent increase in the gasoline tax, which had not been increased from 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993. The horrified reaction from the White House and congressional Republicans: “You can’t do that! That’s a tax increase! You’ll hurt the poor! You’ll hurt working families! You’ll unleash all kinds of evils upon the land!”

Two dollars worth of gasoline price increases later, the conservatives can claim ideological victory, but the country is farther behind than ever in coping with a reality of high gasoline prices that would have been inevitable—given rising demand in countries such as China and India—even if we didn’t have the added influences of a fallen dollar and rampant oil speculation. Not only are public transportation systems strapped for cash, but the federal fund that finances highway projects is running out of cash, and the right-wingers in Congress are, as usual, stymieing a fix.

This is just one consequence of a longstanding conservative pattern on energy: Every time the Bush administration and congressional conservatives had an opportunity to move the nation toward a sensible energy policy focused on conservation, alternative energy sources and environmental protection, it did the opposite: gave tax breaks to Big Oil, cut funding for alternative energy research and undermined environmental protections. Now House Minority Leader John Boehner this week has the nerve to offer what he called “the change you deserve,” which on energy policy is in fact no change at all.

At the end of the day, Boehner’s statements lately have all the sound of the death throes of a bankrupt conservative movement. The truth is, the premium that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been advocating—and which has been blocked by an obstructionist conservative minority in the Senate—would have launched a dramatic shift away from the environmental and geopolitical perils of a fossil-fuel economy toward a green energy future toward which public investment and private entrepreneurship work in concert. Right now, as we plan our summer vacations, that’s a premium we could use a full tank of.

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