Responding to the Critics

Columbia, S.C.

Robert Schneider

Executive Director

The Comet (Central Midlands Transit)

Critics of public transportation don’t realize that while transit will never pay for itself, it’s one of the few publicly funded programs that not only generates its own revenues from user fees, but also becomes more efficient the more it’s used. A bus is running down the street, so the more people we can convince to drop the car keys and climb on board, the lower our operational cost per capita will be.

We have focused on three things to combat the negative belief that transit costs aren’t worth the benefits:

The Comet (Central Midlands Transit) places a premium on our image and our identity. We have to beinnovative, responsive and genuinely committed to growing our customer base. Everything we do is viewed through the lens of results and the ability to increase transit use. People may not see the value of a smartly designed transit super stop until they see 15 people lined up to board the bus. Our new website is visually cool and designed to get route info in two clicks.

We put a face on our riders in the community. We ask riders to tell their employers and family members how important transit is to them. We get out and talk with customers to ask what they think. Then we do what they suggest. We invited the independently created bus riders association to have a spot on our monthly board meeting agenda and serve as a non-voting service standards committee member. We ask them for feedback on shelter locations and bus stop design standards and credit them for the feedback.

We are chasing the 17 to 25 year-old market. Transit critics are usuallypeople who are in the habit of driving cars. Research shows young adults are less likely to have a drivers license at 17, drive fewer miles than any other age group and were raised in a technical world. We want transit to be their habit for years. It’s all part of why we moved away from a government acronym. It’s why our colors are bold. It’s why we’re so attentive to college and university atmospheres. It’s why we have booths at job fairs when we aren’t hiring — because we’re selling transit.

We know that by putting “cheeks in seats,” giving riders a voice and attracting a whole new generation of riders we’re slowly chipping away at the number of people who don’t see value in transit. The emphasis isn’t on trying to prove transit is the solution to all problems. We just prove it’s the solution for our customers in the community.


Washington, D.C.

Brian Pickerall


Booz Allen


Critics of transit project funding come from different directions, with varied agendas. Good responses to such criticism must address the agenda in play and will usually fall within one or more of the following interrelated categories:

  • Economy
  • Environment
  • Energy
  • Mobility

There is ample data to support each argument and organizations such as the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) and the National Alliance of Public Transportation Advocates (NAPTA) are excellent sources to find the information needed to back up your responses to critics.


  • Jobs — Both project construction and transit agency operations create jobs. Every $1 billion invested generates 36,000 jobs.
  • Businesses — Every dollar invested in public transportation generates $3 in local business sales.


  • Carbon footprint — Public transportation saves 37 million tons of CO2 emissions every year, equivalent to the electricity generated for 4.9 million households.


  • Public transportation saves the equivalent of 900,000 auto fill-ups every day and therefore reducing dependence of foreign oil.
  • Areas served by public transportation can save 300 gallons of fuel annually in reduced congestion from less driving.


  • Public transportation reduces traffic, congestion, travel times and stress for everyone in a region, even for those that never use the transit system, saving 865 million hours and 450 million gallons of fuel each year.
  • Public transportation is a vital link for more than 51 million Americans with disabilities, providing them access to jobs and the rest of the economy.

As further evidence of the value of investment in public transit, public private partnerships are becoming more prevalent as laws and policies allow and encourage it. Today, there are billions of dollars in capital funds looking for infrastructure projects in which to invest, but previously there was no mechanism in place to allow a return on the investment. This resulted in public agencies stretching for enough funds to complete projects, and investors sitting on the sidelines with money.

An example of such a partnership is Fairfax County, Va., where the county government and developer Comstock Partners teamed to build a mixed-use parking structure at the $750 million Reston Station project, part of the $6 billion Silver Line Metro extension toWashington Dulles International Airport. The county is providing $87 million toward construction of a $91.3 million, 2,300-space underground parking deck at the largely underground metro station along Wiehle Avenue. The project also envisions a commuter park-and-ride facility and a transit bus depot. On the nine acres above the station, Comstock is developing a 1.3 million square-foot, mixed-use center that will include 900 luxury apartments, a 200-plus-room hotel, restaurants, and office and retail space. Together, the county and Comstock are creating jobs and revenues, benefitting the entire community.

In short, the project must be viewed as an investment in the community in order to silence the critics and show the value of investing in mass transit projects.


Seatlle, Wash.

James D. Parsons, AICP

Vice President, Aecom

For years, the rail transit industry has contended with a host of critics who make a variety of arguments against major capital projects. In recent years, these arguments have become easier to refute by simply citing the many highly successful new rail transit investments. Nevertheless, critics persist with both old and new arguments in cities from Honolulu to Charlotte. However, the industry’s new broader understanding of the relationships between transit investments, land use and economic development and the shaping of future metropolitan-area travel patterns lends a new perspective to the debate.

About 20 years ago the rail transit industry suffered from a track record that saw projects balloon in cost, lengthen in delivery schedule and under perform in terms of forecast and actual ridership. Critics pounced on these problems, dragging up the famous “Don Pickrell Report” of 1990 to argue against investing in transit. The ensuing 10 years saw a vast improvement in our ability to control the scope and cost of new projects, and achieve better-than-expected outcomes. Deliver them on time and produce ridership results above forecasts. Much of this new rigor came about through the efforts of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and its New Starts project development, design, riskassessment and construction oversight procedures. While people may moan about the time and steps involved in the FTA process, it is hard to argue with the results — today most of our projects are delivered under budget, ahead of schedule and with ridership numbers above forecasts. No other area of major public works investment can cite the recent record — certainly not highway projects. The public has also been impressed, as evidenced by the strong support shown at the ballot box for transit tax measures across the country. Nothing answers the critics better than these successes.

Despite this, critics continue to complain that transit investments have not eased traffic congestion. What they fail to recognize is that transit investments will never empty the roads. Transit can ease, but not eliminate the rate of growth inroadway congestion. I am often amused by those who argue that, to be effective, a transit investment should attract everyone else to ride, so that they can drive on uncongested roads. Rail transit investments provide mobility choices and the opportunity for travelers to avoid traffic congestion. Well planned rail transit also provides the infrastructure around which new development can be shaped in ways to reduce auto dependency and vehicle trips in general. One of the biggest benefits of this synergy is the net reduction in vehicle trips — what planners refer to as the “trip not taken” because people can now walk to shop and do other errands. Building more and bigger roads is certainly not the answer to traffic congestion problems.

Critics like to say that transit still accounts for only a tiny fraction of total daily trips in all but the largest cities. What they fail to recognize is that, in many cities, transit’s role during travel peaks is very significant, often accounting for 20 to 50 percent of trips in the high-demand corridors.


Chicago, Ill.

Joe Costello

Executive Director

Northern Illinois Regional Transportation Authority

The future of public transit is at a crossroads. Constrained local, state and federal budgets, combined with capitol shortfalls and increasing rider demand, combine to make it difficult for transit agencies to keep up with the maintenance and replacement of their assets.

In response to this challenge, the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) helped create Getting America to Work (GATW), a coalition of organizations dedicated to finding innovative solutions to funding America’s transit infrastructure. GATW continues raising local and national awareness of capital funding needs by developing turnkey advocacy tools that can be replicated and used by transit supporters nationwide, and encouraging other transit agencies and supporters to join the coalition.

GATW also worked with Congressmen Dan Lipinski (D-IL) and Michael Grimm (R-NY) to develop the first comprehensive Congressional Public Transportation Caucus in Congress. This bipartisan caucus provides a forum for members of Congress to engage in constructive dialogue on the challenges and needs of mass transit agencies across the country.

We feel the pain of funding challenges in our own region. For that reason, the RTA oversees regional state of good repair initiatives, including a regional capital asset condition assessment.

The RTA is taking steps to ensure the region moves toward greater transparency and accountability. We move in this direction while assessing and prioritizing transit capital investments within the parameters of regional funding and long-term strategic objectives.