The Road More Taken

For millions of Americans, public transit long has been an alternative to gas-guzzling and polluting private cars. And, in fact, a recent survey shows the number of people taking trains, buses, and other public transportation has grown at a faster rate than highway use for the past five years.

That may be hard to believe for commuters jammed up on roads. But it's a sign that weary road warriors are ready for other options.

Even though the interstate highway system has served as transportation bedrock for a nation on the move, travel by road has grown steadily more frustrating. What once were ribbons of highways gracing the countryside have become wide swaths of asphalt over-burdened by vehicles. Transportation choices are sorely needed, and state and local governments can do much more to relieve the pressure.

A landmark transportation study proved years ago that when people believed they could get to work quicker on a train, they'd gladly leave their cars behind. A few cities actually are doing something to fulfill that desire.

In Salt Lake City, which opened rail service in December 1999, community skepticism quickly was replaced by a vote six months later for a significant tax increase to expand the system. That same public turnaround has been repeated in Denver, St. Louis, and other cities.

Cities like Portland, Ore., where nearly half of commuters take public transit, show the strong competitiveness of this alternative.

When citizens see the benefits of clean, efficient, and safe travel first hand, attitudes shift rapidly. Ridership in each city mentioned above has far exceeded predictions. Total ridership has gone up, including a significant jump in so-called "new boarding riders," (people who had not previously taken a bus or a train).

In Virginia, a referendum this fall will test whether the public values widening its overcrowded roads around Washington (and removing homes) over what has been an insufficient commitment to rail.

Expensive new road or road-widening projects can further strain state budgets. City and state legislators are wise to latch onto the growing trend of promoting mass-transit rail systems, an investment that can pay longer-term dividends.

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