Getting traffic moving

ISSUES have been less than meaty in this season's campaign stew, so here's a suggestion for one that might be thrown into the pot: America's growing transportation challenge. The figures on dollars lost (hundreds of millions each year) and fuel wasted (billions of gallons) because of traffic jams on highways and at airports are disturbing enough. Add to them the price of trying to address the problem by building new airports and roads, and you have a real social and political conundrum.

Anyone serious about untying knotted traffic will soon run into the need for funds. New taxes, most obviously higher gasoline taxes, have been suggested. The United States taxes that fuel at a much lower rate than do other developed nations, and gas tax revenue fits logically with transportation needs. Still, few politicians are going to back added taxes.

This is one reason, probably, that the country's traffic snarls don't get more attention on the hustings.

But they get plenty of attention in day-to-day life. As we all know, the bulk of Americans now populate the suburbs, and millions of those suburbanites daily face the frustrating realities of inadequate transportation systems. It's not just the workingman making his round trip from Elm Street or Oak Street into the city, 10 or 15 miles distant. It's people commuting from one suburb to another - reflecting the increasing decentralization of the American workplace. It's thousands of women dropping children at day care then commuting to work. It's people trekking 50 miles or more, one way, to the office each day, as families move farther ``out'' to find affordable housing and a country life style.

Commuting, these days, is all over the map. But many of the existing highways and runways were built to serve a former pattern of travel. Beltways designed to filter traffic into a city have become primary thoroughfares themselves. Once-quiet main streets of suburban towns have become commercial arteries as office parks and corporate headquarters migrate out from the metropolitan center.

Traffic and the threat of traffic are crucial issues in local politics. Town and city governments struggle to meet demands for widening and maintaining roadways. Some towns slap on building moratoriums to ward off, for a while, any jump in transportation pressures.

Airports, of course, have their own set of exigencies. Overcrowding at major hubs like Chicago and Denver is legend.

Ideas exist to help ease the traffic snarls. Greater use of moderate-size neighboring airports can relieve overtaxed big-city facilities. For example, the airport in Worcester, Mass., could take pressure off Boston's burdened Logan International. For some cities, rail transit is an answer. For more, perhaps, an enhanced bus system, making use of bus lanes on highways, could reduce traffic logjams. Greater Houston has shown how well that can work.

Transportation is really a complex of issues: Environmental concerns, from road salt to the greenhouse effect, have to be weighed; economic health, and even the state of our culture, get wrapped into our choice of how to get there from here.

The subject needs a thorough airing at all levels of government, since solutions to traffic congestion demand participation at all levels.

And since we're in the middle of a presidential election, it is only appropriate to get a clearer idea of what the federal role in transportation policy should be.

Mr. Bush? Mr. Dukakis?

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