Imagine rail lines, not lonely drivers

February 7, 2013

It used to be that rush hour around cities like Pittsburgh meant traffic jams entering the city in the morning and leaving the city in late afternoon. The few vehicles speeding along in vacant lanes of the opposite direction added to the frustration of motorists inching along, bumper to bumper, burning fuel and patience.

Living and working patterns have changed over the years, however. Now, it seems, traffic is backed up in both directions, and for many more hours of the day. The rush hour of old involved people living in the suburbs and commuting to jobs in the city. But many of the companies that employ those people have moved out to the suburbs, and many of their workers have decided to live in the city – closer to the ball parks, museums, restaurants and night life so absent in the suburbs and beyond. The result is heavy and slow traffic leaving the city in the morning and heading back in the evening – workers leaving their jobs in, say, Southpointe, and heading back to their homes in, say, Squirrel Hill.

And any driver who has wasted precious time in these stop-and-go tie-ups has observed that the cars all around have one thing in common: usually just one occupant.

As our nation’s population increases, so do the number of vehicles on our roads. Everywhere, traffic is getting much worse. An article in Wednesday’s Observer-Reporter cited a study by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute that found Americans wasted an average of $818 each sitting in traffic in 2011, pumping more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The institute estimated that the total cost in wasted fuel and time amounted to $121 billion.

The solution to this problem is, perhaps, too simple: Develop mass transportation to move people back and forth between suburbs and city. Getting more vehicles off the road relieves both congestion and the cost of maintaining those roads. If more people take mass transit into the city, they are more reliant on public transit to move them around the city. The more riders, the more self-sustaining public transit can be.

Logic and common sense, unfortunately, are often pushed aside when politics come into play. Politicians need to please the voters, whose personal preference is the freedom to travel as they please – alone in their cars, most often. These motoring voters complain that the roads are too crowded and demand that their tax dollars be spent on more and better roads, not on building rail lines and propping up bus companies.

Presenting his budget proposal this week, Gov. Tom Corbett said, “Now is the time to be innovative. Now is the time to embrace new ideas. And now is the time to be bold.”

The governor’s idea of “bold” must be breaking his anti-tax pledge. He wants to raise $5 billion over five years through the oil company franchise tax that could increase prices at the pump by more than 28 cents a gallon. This money would be used to repair roads and bridges, which is badly needed, but also to build additional lanes to highways – to accommodate more solo drivers, we presume. Though $250 million of that revenue would go to mass transit, Corbett designates only $75 million of it for “multi-modal” transportation, which is defined as rail, aviation and water traffic.

The solution to the problems of our highways – building and improving rail systems that are an alternative to driving – is enormously expensive. Proposing this solution would really be bold, but such an investment would pay big dividends for many years to come in the form of reduced traffic, reduced need for maintenance and reconstruction of roads, reduced pollution and reduced cost of treating conditions caused by air pollution.

Imagine Pittsburgh’s light rail extended south from South Hills Village to, say, Canonsburg or even Washington, and new lines extending east to Murraysville or Tarentum, north to Wexford and west to Pittsburgh International Airport.

“Now is not the time to cling to old ideas and the status quo,” Corbett said.

We can’t agree more.



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