As Congress prepares to consider the needs of America’s transportation infrastructure, we cannot afford to underinvest in transit, nor can we ignore the need to rethink wholesale how our transportation network should be designed in order to compete in the 21st century.
Regional and local public transportation systems are critical economic drivers. They provide communities with access to jobs, education and training opportunities and services as well as reduce our collective carbon footprint by taking cars off the road.
Transit also facilitates growth for local businesses. According to the American Public Transportation Association, each dollar invested in public transportation creates four dollars in economic returns, from job creation to increased business sales.
While the majority of this investment occurs at the state and local levels, the federal government provides key support that helps get needed projects off the ground. Programs like the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) Transportation Discretionary Grant program, the Capital Investment Grant program’s New Starts, Small Starts and Core Capacity grants and others accelerate community-changing projects in rural, suburban and urban areas alike — such as the Second Avenue Subway project in my district. As we reauthorize federal surface transportation programs, we must not only invest more in these key initiatives but also seek to build upon and duplicate their success.
Furthermore, our federal government ought to invest in modernizing our transit systems. Improved technology and innovative business models will help transit providers and municipal agencies provide greater and better mobility options while reducing capital and operating costs. We should explore approaches, perhaps through a dedicated program, to provide transit agencies and municipal governments with funding to integrate innovation and high-performing transit services into their systems.
Another important way to truly impact federal surface transportation programs is by increasing the focus of investment in alternative forms of transportation and encouraging states and localities to consider the needs of all users.
First, we should ensure states are collecting and reporting necessary data on vulnerable users as well as safety incident hotspots.
Next, we must hold states accountable by requiring them to target their safety dollars to these problem areas. Congress should empower local governments to take a holistic approach when redesigning local streets. The end goal cannot be simply improved traffic flow for vehicles; it must also focus on the ability of all users to take full advantage of our streets without fear for their safety.
Initiatives like Vision Zero, which have been implemented in New York City and in urban areas around the country, have fostered the development of creative solutions to improving safety and enhancing user access. It remains critical that we find ways to take the best of what has worked successfully and elevate these policies to the federal level by incentivizing other localities to implement similar strategies.
We should also employ strategies in the transportation sector that contribute toward carbon emissions reduction goals. Not only should we put forth more policies that uphold America’s commitment to the Paris Climate Accord, but we can also improve public health through the reduction of other polluting emissions by investing in transit and alternative modes of transportation in an effort to fight congestion. Some of the most heavily trafficked and highly congested areas, often populated by communities of color, are also experiencing high rates of asthma and other public health issues directly related to high emissions and poor air quality. What’s more, congestion contradicts the very economic interest that the transportation system should inspire. I encourage my congressional colleagues to address these challenges within their respective communities and urban centers by creating programs specifically designed to fight congestion. An urban congestion program should focus on providing resources for local governments to integrate technology into the transportation system and reduce bottlenecks that cause gridlock. Robust investment should be tied to performance-based planning that looks at implementing cost-effective solutions.
Finally, but of course no less important, is the need to use infrastructure investment as a job-generating opportunity for underserved communities. Not only must we develop a pipeline of workers for 21st century infrastructure projects, but we must also focus our training and hiring efforts in communities that have been historically left behind when these projects hit the ground. I strongly believe that if we invest in training in diverse communities and promote policies that make projects accessible to a more diverse array of participants, we can create a cycle of success that will redound to the benefit of generations to come.
The federal government has always exercised an important role in the movement of people and goods throughout our vast nation. Over the course of our history, we rose to new generational challenges, from the completion of the Erie Canal to the construction of the Interstate Highway System. As the needs of our infrastructure for the 21st century become apparent, be it basic investment and construction to modernization and holistic redesign, the federal government must step up to ensure Americans’ success.
• First elected to Congress in 2016, Rep. Adriano Espaillat serves on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, where he is the only member representing New York City, home to the nation’s largest transit system. Rep. Espaillat also serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Small Business Committee. He is a Senior Whip of the House Democratic Caucus and is a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) where he also serves in a leadership role as CHC Whip. He is also chairman of the CHC Task Force for Transportation, Infrastructure and Housing. Rep. Espaillat’s Congressional District includes Harlem, East Harlem, northern Manhattan and the north-west Bronx. To find out more about Rep. Espaillat, visit online at https://espaillat.house.gov/.
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