On March 13, 2012, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) hosted a briefing on the regional economic impacts of public transportation systems and on the country’s increasing reliance on transit systems as fuel prices rise. The current national average for gasoline is $3.76 a gallon and climbing. As fuel costs become prohibitive, individuals increasingly seek out transportation alternatives. Past experience has shown that rising fuel prices has a direct correlation in attracting additional transit riders. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) will soon release an updated analysis to show this relationship, and will provide observations.

The briefing covered the impacts of rising gasoline prices on drivers and public transportation systems, how transit systems are adapting to increased demand, the role of transit systems in fostering local economic development and national supply chains, and the value of continued investment in public transportation.

  • Americans are looking for good transportation choices. With rising gas prices, convenient and efficient public transportation is a great option. Increased investment improves the viability of this option.
  • As gas prices rise, it is vital that public transportation is equipped to effectively accommodate the surge of individuals who are first-time riders. Transit systems work hard to leave these individuals with a great first impression, but aging infrastructure and constrained budgets complicate this effort.
  • Prior to current spikes in gasoline prices, ridership of public transportation rose nationally in 2011 by 200 million trips.
  • Benefits of public transportation include congestion mitigation, air quality improvement, and more development opportunities. Additionally, public transportation can provide a time for leisure where one can check emails without endangering oneself or others.
  • Public transportation is related to employment rates. In Savannah, Georgia, 25 percent of worker turnover is attributed to unreliable transportation. Adequate alternative transportation could further investments to develop the manufacturing base, adding significant value to the local economy.
  • The image of public transportation needs to be addressed. There should not be a stigma of a class or economic divide among ridership. Nor should public transportation only be used within the confines of cities.
  • Counterintuitively, rural areas with decreasing populations have a rising need for public transportation. It is the mobile portions of the population that are more likely to leave, increasing the percentage of less mobile individuals and skewing the need for transportation access.
  • In rural areas there are often increased barriers to basic amenities, such as a healthcare provider, that include a lack of public transportation alongside higher than average gas prices and travel distances.
  • The cost of investing in public transportation throughout the country is significantly offset by the direct and indirect economic benefits to communities directly adjacent to transit stations and to the greater region. This includes higher property values, accelerated development, and increased connectivity to jobs and other opportunities.

Besides direct savings for commuters, public transportation systems provide extensive local economic and social benefits. The Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority estimates that proximity to Metrorail increases property values by seven to nine percent, raising property values within a half-mile of Metrorail stations to $235 billion. Transit systems also reduce road and parking congestion, travel time, accidents and pollution.

Transit systems are working hard to improve capacity in order to provide viable, economic transportation alternatives for more Americans, but local officials are concerned that the expected influx of ridership will strain transit services if appropriate long-term investments are not enacted soon. The eighth extension of the current surface transportation reauthorization ends on March 31, two and a half years after the bill originally expired. A multi-year surface transportation bill, many argue, is necessary for local transit systems to prepare for higher demand and support economic growth.