State should approve RTA for mass transit

    Last week was a major milestone for the average household in the greater Milwaukee metropolitan area – March 22 was transportation freedom day! That’s the date a typical area household has earned enough to cover its annual transportation costs.

    So, you can celebrate, Milwaukee, you’ve earned enough to pay for your transportation for the year.
    Here’s the bad news – it takes the average metro-Milwaukee family nearly three months’ salary (81 days of income) to pay off a year’s worth of annual transportation costs.

    Translating that into dollars, the average metro Milwaukee family is spending $10,079 on transportation costs, 25 percent more than the average American household, which spends roughly $8000 on transportation.

    Milwaukee isn’t unique. Transportation is a major expense for most American families, particularly those who are dependent on cars. Owning an automobile is expensive – between car payments, insurance, repairs, parking and gasoline, the average American household spends more than $8,000 per year on vehicles. Americans spend more on transportation than we spend on food, clothing, entertainment or health care – and far more than we spend on income taxes.

    So, how can we save consumers money and lower transportation costs in the region? One strategy is to increase access to public transportation. Americans who live in areas with good access to public transportation tend to spend less on transportation than those who are fully dependent on cars. In some neighborhoods, the typical median-income earner achieves “Transportation Freedom” as soon as early-to-mid February. In others, Transportation Freedom Day isn’t until mid-to-late April.

    People who live near transit – or in walkable neighborhoods with a mix of homes, stores and community buildings – spend less on transportation than people who live in car-dependent areas because they tend to own fewer cars, use their cars less often, and take shorter trips. They tend to travel more by walking or using more efficient, energy-saving forms of transportation, such as public transit.

    For example, an individual switching from driving to public transportation in 2010 in Minneapolis could expect to save $9,884 in 2010, according to the American Public Transit Association.

    When more people use public transportation, they also save money and hassle for other drivers. That’s because public transportation reduces the number of cars on the road, easing congestion. In 2007, public transportation avoided 646 million hours of roadway congestion – the equivalent of a year of work for over 300,000 people. Public transit’s $13.7 billion in economic benefits from reduced congestion was more than one-and-a-half times the total federal investment in transit in 2007.

    On top of these benefits, we also know that public transportation reduced America’s dependence on oil by reducing consumption of oil by billions of gallons each year, which as a result also avoids emissions of tens of millions of tons of carbon dioxide, the leading pollutant responsible for global warming. And investments in public transportation consistently create more jobs than spending on highways.

    State legislators have the opportunity to give consumers in Milwaukee and throughout southeastern Wisconsin more options and to save consumers money by enhancing regional transit. Passing regional transit authority (RTA) legislation will give residents more and better transit options. 

    Shortchanging public transportation is a classic case of being pennywise and pound foolish.  Now more than ever, public officials must make transit a top priority. Not only will it save consumers money, but it’s vital to economic growth and development in the region.

    At a time when many Americans are struggling to make ends meet, giving more people in Milwaukee access to transit makes good sense for our communities and for our pocketbooks!

    Bruce Speight is the director of the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG), and Kathryn Tholin is the chief executive officer of the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

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