Another daunting year lies ahead. As we look at the looming challenges we could feel energized and anticipate success. Why? Because local funding shortfalls, federal transit funding, aging equipment, security, workforce development, evolving technologies and other issues are just this year’s version of all past years. If you’ve been in the transit field a few years, you’ve dealt with these issues every year, somehow stitching together a budget and action plans to keep your buses and trains in service. Every day you delivered your customers to jobs, schools and sports events across town and back, safely and on schedule (usually) despite the challenges. Transportation issues will continue to capture attention in any discourse of the economy.
Every rise in fuel prices, increase in travel times due to road congestion, and ozone alert drives home the message to both citizens and government leaders that our current technologies are unsustainable and greater reliance on public transit is our future. Couple these concerns with job creation, and transit offers tremendous returns on investment. But our current practice of short-changing transit must be transformed with newly energized support for the domestic transit industry and our local transit agencies.
Investment in transit infrastructure needs to be today’s space program. After Sputnik, a U.S. space program was considered essential, and, although we haven’t transported many people in spaceships, the money flowed. Adjusted for inflation, NASA’s annual budget has averaged $15.8 billion over the past 50 years, approaching $800 billion in total. While space exploration funding continues, it would seem that at this time we urgently need terrestrial transport development.
Is this our Sputnik moment? If so, it is time to direct our funding and technical expertise to launch a new era in transportation for the next century, as we did with the plane and automobile a century ago. The outcome would be quantum improvements in mobile energy generation and storage, communication and control systems, capacity and reliability, plus deploying these improvements into new vehicles for transit agencies. And just like the space program, we could expect spinoff technologies and products -- maybe a 21st century Tang.
Seriously, we know that reliance on the automobile, and the oil that fuels it, are destined to decline. For our national security we must invest in alternatives. Funding must be redirected from programs that once served us well, to investments for the next hundred years.