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On the road again.

Margy Waller ("Auto-Mobility," October/November) is correct that automobiles will not be going away any time soon and that the poor need better ways to access jobs. Somehow providing the means for many more Americans to own a car is surely a well-meaning idea. But instead of digging our graves deeper by making even more of us desperately dependent on the volatile, unsustainable and devastating oil economy, we should be talking about giving people more choice and autonomy as to where they can live and how they can get around: for example, allowing people to choose among driving to work, living closer to their jobs (including in the suburbs, where unfair regulations all but prohibit lower-cost housing options), using dependable and convenient transit, and taking a job closer to where they live (i.e., bringing jobs to existing developed areas).

Waller is correct that transit systems today cannot effectively serve both central cities and the sprawling suburban countryside. But over time--indeed, over a relatively short span of 25 years--that can change if we want it to. In a recent Brookings Institution report, Professor Arthur C. Nelson of Virginia Tech writes that, as of 2030, fully one half of all the buildings in which Americans will live and work will have been built after the year 2000.

We still have the opportunity to vastly influence the shape and location of future growth and development in this country. This is the future of choice, of personal and family autonomy instead of one marked by the unaffordable promise of publicly subsidized car and commuting costs for every wage-earner--with all the wide-ranging adverse implications of such a public policy, both foreign and domestic. The former is the future we should be seeking to create, instead of reinforcing the latter.

Lee Epstein

Silver Spring, Md.

It's hard to know where to begin to respond to Margy Waller's bizarre proposal to spend $100 billion to support auto commuting.

First, there is the serious question about national funding priorities. Why, when our roads and bridges are crumbling--not only in the devastated Gulf Coast, but all across America--should we be adding to our burden by funding an increase in auto use?

Although the price tag for Waller's proposal is significant, it doesn't begin to address the total costs involved. Individuals will be burdened with fuel, maintenance, and insurance costs, which, according to the AAA, can run as high as $5,000 or more annually. Governments at all levels will have to add roadway capacity and parking spaces--multiplying the initial cost several-fold. Without these additional investments, the entire road network would be at risk of collapse. Witness Houston's evacuation experience: Traffic backed up for more than 40 miles as thousands tried to use the freeways at the same time. In New Orleans, it would have been worse. If those stranded in the city without transport as Katrina approached had had access to a car, as Waller proposes, the traffic jam there would have brought the entire freeway system to a halt, exposing even more people to the hurricane's wrath. Adding just a few cars to an already overburdened roadway--even in the best of circumstances--is ultimately self-defeating, as traffic engineers and most drivers know all too well.

The good news is that people around the country are beginning to understand that providing a range of transportation choices is better than relying on a single solution. In cities across the country, Americans are voting to invest more in transit. They're taking a serious look at better land-use patterns, realizing the personal and community benefits of walking and bicycling, and starting to build inter-modal facilities that allow people to combine the options that best suit their needs. The results are revitalized cities, increased accessibility to jobs, and reduced costs for all workers. This approach has already reaped benefits in the Portland, Ore., metropolitan region; the average household there has a shorter commute and pays 5 percent less of its budget on transportation than a similar household in Houston, which is only starting to realize the benefits of balanced transportation.

Yes, the private automobile is an important component of our transportation network, but promoting it to provide better access to jobs only increases the costs to workers, employers, and our communities.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.)

Washington, D.C.

Margy Waller responds:

Unfortunately, Rep. Blumenauer mischaracterizes my proposal as helping only those who drive to work. I propose to lower the effective tax on work by providing relief for workers who expend limited resources on commuting and the poorest families who've had to forgo economic opportunity because they cannot afford a car. This change in our national tax policy would benefit working families (households with income under $52,000) who must drive to work--as 88 percent of workers do today--as well as those who can take transit.

Rep. Blumenauer seems to say he opposes my proposal because in an emergency (and presumably during everyday commutes as well) the well-off residents with cars might more likely be stuck in traffic if poorer families are also on the road. Does Rep. Blumenauer mean that he is willing to continue to consign poor workers to inadequate public transit in order to make sure the wealthy are not delayed? Is he truly content to live with a system that exposes only the poor to a hurricane?

Is Rep. Blumenauer serious when he suggests that there are other national funding priorities that are more important than the economic and homeland security of working Americans? How long must working families in this country wait for "our national funding priorities" to include them? The immediate and extensive access needs of these families demand a response from our government now.

His "analysis" of differences between Portland and Houston misses the point of my article. In fact, even in Portland almost everyone commutes in a private vehicle and less than 6 percent of workers in the region use transit to get to work. However, the evidence strongly suggests that low-income families work and earn more when they have a car. Unfortunately, they are the priority too many so-called progressives are willing to sacrifice on the altar of their "PC" policy agenda.

It's true that voters in many places have supported local investment in transit--but usually it's transit that meets the needs of well-to-do rail riders. I say that when affluent families use transit at rates approaching those of low-income workers we can start talking about sharing the wait for a ride. Until then, policy should not hold hostage the income prospects of low-income workers and the children that depend on them until the rest of us "understand" the need to pass enough bond debt to pay for improved transit.
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Title Annotation:Letters
Author:Waller, Margy
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Letter to the Editor
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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