Study finds most Americans think public transit is often the better choice

KANSAS CITY, MO. — A new study from HNTB Corp. takes a look at public transportation and what Americans think about using, improving, and paying for it.

According to the HNTB America THINKS transit survey, nearly nine in 10 (87 percent) Americans who have access to public transportation where they work or live take advantage of it. In addition, almost seven in 10 (69 percent) Americans feel there are many times when public transit is a better option than driving, and nearly three in ten of them choose higher gas prices (29 percent) and convenience (29 percent) as the biggest motivators for riding public transportation.

“Whether it’s buses, commuter trains, light rail, or streetcars, public transportation is an essential element for our communities,” said Elizabeth Rao, chair public transit services for HNTB. “People like transit and successful cities deliver it.”

Approximately one in four respondents think the most valuable feature of public transportation is that it reduces traffic congestion (28 percent), or saves users money (24 percent), while about one in seven (13 percent) say its most valuable feature is the environmental benefit.

“Healthy transportation infrastructure is economically and environmentally sound. It spurs job creation, stimulates the economy, reduces dependence on foreign oil, and enhances quality of life,” Rao said. “Unfortunately, decades of underinvestment have taken their toll.”

The nation’s largest public transit agencies face an $80 billion maintenance backlog just to bring their rail systems to a state of good repair. Within the next six years, almost every transit vehicle (55,000 vehicles) in rural America will need to be replaced. Even amid budget and service cutbacks due to the recession, 68 percent of Americans say the overall quality of public transportation in their area has stayed the same or improved during the last five years. Among respondents with public transportation in their area, 58 percent say it has stayed about the same, while 25 percent think it has improved.

Fortunately, transit is entering something of a “golden age” of funding in America. The Obama administration has set aside more money for transit development than any other time in the last 20 years, including Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, sustainability, and planning grants — literally hundreds of millions of dollars are waiting to be awarded. Rao said the problem is that those federal monies require a local match, and many cities, already forced to cut basic services, don’t have the revenue to ante up their share.

While using existing taxes is the most popular method of funding better public transportation, the survey showed millions also are willing to pay a little more for a convenient ride.

“Economically viable cities will make transit a priority because they realize they can generate multiple, positive economic outcomes with a single investment,” Rao said. “There has never been a better time for cities to build, improve, or expand their public transit systems.”

Nearly half (46 percent) of Americans think local, state, and federal governments don’t spend enough money on public transportation in their area. Almost three in 10 (28 percent) think these governments should rely on a greater share of gas tax to help fund improved public transportation options. Approximately two in 10 think private investors (21 percent) or local sales taxes (20 percent) should be the primary source of public transit funding. Just one in 10 (10 percent) thinks property taxes are the answer.

HNTB’s America THINKS survey polled a random nationwide sample of 1,000 Americans between Sept. 2 and Sept. 9, 2010. It was conducted by Kelton Research, which used an e-mail invitation and online survey. Quotas were set to ensure reliable and accurate representation of the total U.S. population ages 18 and over. The margin of error is +/- 3.1 percent.


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