Vukan R. Vuchic
and Bryan R. Lentz
are, respectively, a transportation professor
at the University of Pennsylvania and a state representative from Delaware County
President-elect Barack Obama and the nation's governors met in Philadelphia yesterday partly to discuss the possibility of extensive spending on transportation infrastructure to help create jobs and stabilize our economy. We want to urge our leaders to take a look over the hill, to the future.
The need to inject billions into our economy presents an opportunity to make dramatic, transformative investment in our transportation infrastructure. Let's not blow it by exhausting our financial resources on recurring road and bridge maintenance, ignoring the opportunity to improve intercity passenger rail and urban transit. The latter kind of investment could reduce our dependency on automobiles, decrease energy consumption, and lessen the need for repairs of the same roads and bridges in the years ahead.
There's no question that our traditional transportation infrastructure is not in good condition. The main cause of its deterioration is an untenable increase in automobile and truck traffic, which accelerates the deterioration of road surfaces and bridges.
But dealing with these problems by expanding roadways and increasing maintenance programs is comparable to dealing with obesity by loosening one's belt. The most effective long-term solution to traffic congestion is a modern, first-class passenger-rail and urban-transit system.
Most of our peer countries have already learned this lesson and are far ahead of us, using advanced rail and transit systems. Large government investments over the course of decades have helped 15 countries build high-speed-rail systems, which have drawn passengers from cars and airplanes and greatly improved the economic efficiency of public transport.
In America, initiatives to improve mass-transit infrastructure have stagnated for decades as foreign oil suppliers manipulated prices just enough to keep us happy in our cars. Now, however, that strategy seems to be less effective.
Although gas prices have fallen since the summer, Amtrak and SEPTA regional rail continue to experience record increases in ridership. As we saw during the recent Phillies victory parade, the public's desire for mass transit on a regional level can quickly overwhelm the existing system.
Now we have a unique opportunity to capture and encourage the public's demand for better transit services by investing in mass transit and transforming our transportation system.
Where we live, in Delaware County, and throughout the Philadelphia region, meritorious transit projects have been discussed for years, but have gone undone for lack of dollars. They include resumption of R3 regional rail service to West Chester, further revitalization of the 69th Street terminal and business district, extension of the Broad Street Subway to the Navy Yard, resumption of commuter rail service to Reading and Allentown, and construction of a high-speed line from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia.
The last of these projects would allow a passenger to cross the state in one hour. It could be a segment of the high-speed-rail network proposed a few days ago by Sens. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) and John Kerry (D., Mass.). Imagine the reduction in road congestion and airport congestion with such a system in place throughout the region.
There are many other worthy projects that organizations such as the Smart Growth Alliance and Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission have advocated for years. All of them would create jobs and stimulate the economy for some time.
These projects have been described as pipe dreams for years on the grounds that they would require too much investment. But if we are about to spend billions of dollars to create jobs and jump-start the economy, let's spend the money transforming our transportation infrastructure - not simply maintaining it.
Otherwise, in just a few years, another governor in another economy will be lamenting the deteriorated state of our roads and bridges. And we will have let pass this opportunity to modernize our obsolete transportation system.