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Higher Gas Prices Could be Good for Public Transit

J. Mijin Cha

Public transit in the U.S. is a classic chicken and egg situation: outside of a few metropolitan areas, transit networks are not dense enough to be useful so few people take public transit. If few people take public transit, there is not enough demand or political will to expand transit networks, leading to low ridership, and so on. With this cycle, it becomes easy for politicians to forgo investing the capital and political will necessary to build out transit networks because they can point to low ridership and say there is no public appetite for it.

We’ve debunked this idea before and now, a new report shows how when gas prices increase, transit ridership increases. Intuitively, that makes sense as a cost saving measure and, if finances were the only issue, transit ridership would decrease in step with gas prices. However, the report found that when people start taking public transportation, they continue to do so even after gas prices decrease due to the numerous benefits it offers. This finding shows that people want to take public transportation, even when they have the option to drive.

The problem with increased ridership, however, is that because we have continually underinvested in public transit, the transit system gets easily overloaded with even a slight increase in ridership. And, as the recent transit bill debacle showed, increasing investment in transit, let alone expanding transit networks will be an uphill battle. The House and Senate met in conference committee for the first time yesterday to try to resolve their differences on reauthorizing the transit bill. Earlier this year, the Senate passed a bill that retains support for public transportation, while the House was unable to pass a transit bill and instead passed a placeholder that allowed it to go to conference committee.

Yet, even with the Senate provision, which maintains funding at current levels, public transportation receives far less support than roads and highways and its effectiveness is further impeded by the chronic underinvestment in our existing infrastructure. A recent bi-partisan report found that the U.S. would have to invest an additional $134-$262 billion per year until 2035 to maintain and improve our existing transit system.

Instead of relying on Congress to do the right thing on its own, the key to building a reliable, extensive public transit system may be to keep gas prices high. High gas pricess would increase demand for transit, and therefore increase pressure on decision makers to finally begin to invest in a long-term investment and expansion of our transit networks. One way to increase gas prices would be to increase the gas tax, which would also provide more money for transit. Currently, the federal gas tax is 18.4 cents a gallon-- the same as it was in 1993 and it is not providing enough revenue. Every penny increase in the tax generates $1.8 billion in revenue so even an increase of a few cents would generate billions of dollars for infrastructure repair and investment.

While the increased gas prices will cause some financial hardship on working families, the benefits of taking public transportation could offset any increased costs. Some estimates find a savings of more than $10,000 for households that take transit at least once a day. Of course, this plan isn’t perfect, as it would disproportionately burden households that have no access to transit. But, we have to start somewhere. Driving less, in general, is better for the planet and for our health. If higher gas prices make people drive less, that’s one benefit that shouldn’t be easily dismissed.