By: Mantill Williams-Director of Advocacy Communications
American Public Transportation Association
In late July—just one day apart—two new major American public transportation operations got underway. On Friday, July 25, an estimated 17,000 passengers enjoyed an inaugural ride on the Sun Link—the brand new streetcar system in Tucson, Arizona. And a day later, on July 26, 32,000 Washington-area residents and visitors rode the DC Metro’s new Silver Line—the first entirely new line to be added to the DC rail system since 1991.
In both cities, there is clearly a strong demand for public transportation. Washington has notoriously congested roadways, and Dulles International Airport cannot be accessed by Metro rail.
Tucson is growing rapidly and has seen per capita public transit ridership grow by 25 percent over the last five years. With these changes, the city needed improved public transit options that would reduce traffic congestion and air pollution.
Public Transportation Benefits Two Very Different Cities
To put it mildly, Washington and Tucson are very different cities. The Washington metropolitan area—the 7th most populous in the U.S.—is home to nearly 6 million people, and it draws commuters from the Baltimore area, which includes another 2.7 million people. In addition, Washington attracts several million visitors every year, many of whom get around town using public transportation.
In contrast, the Tucson area, with about 1 million people, is the 53rd-largest metropolitan area in the nation. The city has a densely populated central corridor that stretches four miles and takes in the University of Arizona (UA) and downtown.
For Tucson, a new streetcar line makes perfect sense. Nearly 100,000 people live within a quarter-mile of the Sun Link route, and many other residents can access the streetcar system via Sun Tran buses. Sun Link contributes to the livability of the city and improves access to services, jobs, and the UA campus. Already, since the Sun Link service was announced, a remarkable $1.5 billion has been invested in housing, offices, restaurants, and retail long the streetcar’s route.
While the Washington Metro has operated since 1976, service did not reach residents in parts of northern Virginia. In addition, the inability to access Dulles airport via the Metro added challenges—and headaches—for visitors and residents alike. The Silver Line now reaches several area suburbs and will eventually provide access to Dulles when the second phase of the new route is completed in 2018.
United by Federal Support
In spite of their differences, Tucson’s Sun Link and the Metro Silver Line are united by federal support. Sun Link received nearly $83 million in federal funding, about 42 percent of the total cost of the project. Silver Line construction was supported by $900 million in federal funding. While local funding is crucial for public transportation projects, federal support is undeniably instrumental for such large-scale projects.
Other cities and communities—including yours!—should have similar opportunities to launch or expand local public transportation systems. But for American public transportation to serve a greater cross-section of our nation—including suburbs, small towns, and rural areas—we need a new era of federal government support for public transit. More and more people are using public transportation today—the most since the 1950s—and our nation’s transportation policies must support this sea change in how Americans are getting around.