Mass transit crucial in highway fixes

A mechanic keeps a trolley working in CARTA's fleet of buses. CARTA depends on federal funding for about a third of its operating budget, but that money could run dry next month if Congress doesn't act. (Wade Spees/File)

CARTA and hundreds of other public transportation systems around the country depend on federal funding to move millions of people around cities and towns every day.

But a new bill sponsored by 1st District Rep. Mark Sanford would completely eliminate that badly needed federal support over a period of five years. Another bill by Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., would eliminate it immediately.

Those proposals could hardly come at a worse time.

For one thing, mass transit ridership is at a more than five-decade high nationwide, carrying passengers on billions of rides each year. Locally, CARTA set an all-time ridership record in 2014, with more than 5 million rides for the first time ever.

And the nation’s crumbling transportation infrastructure — not least in South Carolina, which faces a $1.6 billion annual shortfall for state roads — demands more, not less, investment.

That includes smarter, more effective mass transit programs, better bike lanes and more sidewalks to permanently reduce the vehicle burden on roads and highways.

But funding for the nation’s transportation infrastructure could run dry at the end of next month if Congress doesn’t act. That’s because the federal Highway Trust Fund, which has faced sharply declining gas tax revenue as cars become more fuel efficient and people drive less, runs out money on May 31.

Rep. Sanford explained that his bill doesn’t necessarily mean that transit should be ignored, but that is not what the trust fund was designed to support.

“The original fund was built on the precept that the gas tax would pay for the roads you drive on,” he said. “If you haven’t contributed to the trust fund, you shouldn’t withdraw from the trust fund.”

Currently, about 20 percent of Highway Trust Fund dollars pay for mass transit projects, most of which are in urban areas. CARTA relies on the fund for about a third of its annual operating budget.

Millions of people depend on public transportation to get to work, school, the grocery store and anywhere else. Better, more effective systems could make mass transit more convenient and enticing for even more people.

That’s good news for the health of roadways across the country. When more people use mass transit, bike lanes and sidewalks, fewer vehicles cause congestion and wear down highways.

The impact is already substantial.

CARTA helped take 12,500 cars off Charleston area roads every day in 2014, and that number has been steadily increasing for years.

Not that further justification is needed, but even taxpayers who never use public transportation can benefit substantially from strong investment in mass transit. That’s because transit infrastructure requires the support of various industries and businesses that employee millions of people around the country.

In South Carolina, manufacturers and engineers build engines, tires and other components that keep buses and rail networks going, for example.

Transportation infrastructure should be one of the highest priorities for the federal government, and mass transit must remain a strong component of that infrastructure.

The Highway Trust Fund needs a long-term fix that will help badly needed projects move forward now and years down the road.