Public Transit Changes Lives

January 22, 2020

Every day in communities across America, people board their local bus, light rail or train. In fact, 34 million times each weekday, Americans ride public transportation to work or school, to visit the doctor or visit family. But modern, thoughtful transportation infrastructure doesn’t just offer a way to get from point A to B — it positively changes people’s lives.

Great communities invest in great infrastructure — everything from hiking trails to highways. That investment improves residents’ health, makes our cities more sustainable and contributes to the overall economic vitality of a community.

When cities offer their residents wide sidewalks and safe bike paths, people can make healthier choices.  Replacing passenger vehicles on our crowded roads with busses and trains cuts down on carbon emissions and will have a long-term impact on our air quality. And mass transit is a major economic development tool, stimulating public and private investment, new construction and jobs. 

What’s incredible about public transportation is that these outcomes reach everyone in our community. It helps those who can’t afford a car get to work. It empowers seniors who can no longer drive and individuals with disabilities to lead independent lives. For many, public transit is the key to earning a living or a high quality of life.

It’s possible in any community

Since 1997, public transportation ridership in our country has increased by 21 percent, outpacing the overall population growth of 19 percent. People are choosing this option more now than ever before—including in cities that have historically been car-centric. 

The perfect test case of this shift is my hometown of Phoenix, a city built for cars. With a metro population of 4.8 million people and growing, greater Phoenix is facing worsening traffic and pollution. We’ve started to turn the tide on these challenges over the last 15 years, though, with smart investments in better public transit options. 

In 2008, a voter-supported light rail opened in the Valley of the Sun, connecting Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa along a thoughtfully designed 26-mile route. The new light rail created a permanent connection between the major business centers of central and downtown Phoenix, the convention center and sports arenas, Sky Harbor International Airport, Arizona State University, downtown Mesa and more. 

Ridership almost immediately exceeded all projections, and today, nearly 50,000 people ride the regional light rail every weekday. It has attracted $12 billion in public and private capital investment along the rail line — investment that built new higher education facilities, corporate headquarters, market-rate and affordable housing, and commerce centers that otherwise wouldn’t exist. 

Our light rail was also critical to landing mega events including the Super Bowl, NCAA Final Four and the College Football national championships. It was the catalyst for downtown Phoenix’s renaissance. It’s helping attract a talented workforce, which is helping attract more employers. 

But most of all, by embracing a healthy, robust public transportation system, Phoenix is improving lives. People with disabilities can lead more independent lives with reliable transit options. Working families can make a living with one car. And families looking to save can choose to live comfortably with one car instead of two.

Our communities have embraced public transit so much that Phoenix voters in 2015 doubled down and backed an ambitious 35-year investment to extend the light rail, increase bus service, and improve thousands of miles of roadways. 

Congress’s role in supporting local transportation projects

Phoenix’s embrace of transit isn’t unique. Public transit is becoming a more popular choice in cities such as Seattle, Houston, Detroit and Las Vegas, where ridership is also on the rise. Like Phoenix, those cities recently chose to invest in light rail and increase bus routes and frequency. 

But the choice to prioritize public transportation shouldn’t rest solely on cities. In recent years, Congress has unfortunately moved away from being a good partner to local governments and placed an unfair share of the funding burden on cities. We have to turn that around. The federal government must play a more significant role in investing in major infrastructure projects in our communities — we simply can’t afford to leave the responsibility to state and local governments alone.

To ensure as many people as possible benefit from well-connected infrastructure, it’s on Congress to do its part by advancing forward-thinking policies and supporting the next generation of projects. One way we can do this is by making sure that federal grant and loan programs reach communities that can benefit from them. 

The Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Grants Program, for example, is augmenting local transportation projects in Arizona. Using this tool, we secured $100 million last year to support the expansion of light rail into South Phoenix, and another $75 million to accelerate construction of a streetcar in Tempe. Those dollars made the difference to get our projects built.

Federal investments like these can help reshape communities throughout the United States, and Congress must continue to make them a priority. 

There’s no doubt: When we invest in transportation infrastructure, we can improve the overall economic health of our community. It’s not just about moving people. Great public transportation has the potential to lift — and connect — everyone. 

Stanton represents Arizona’s 9th District in Congress. He formerly served as mayor of Phoenix.