As some regular readers of this Commentary know, I serve on the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission. I have only five months remaining to be called Commissioner Weyrich. I rather like that. I tried to convince my children (now all grown) to call me by that title. No dice. I tried the grandchildren. No way. I suggested this to my wife. She thought it was a good title for taking out the garbage. Oh well, at least I have Commissioners and officials at the Department of Transportation (DOT) who respect the title.
Last week the Commission met for two days and heard testimony from William W. (Bill) Millar, President of the American Public Transportation Association. I have known Bill for eleven years. The longer I know him the more I respect him. He not only cares about transit, he is emotionally committed to it. I like that.
We asked those who testified to estimate future transportation needs. Bill chose to make predictions based upon the year 2050. I must say his predictions greatly surprised me.
He predicted that the number of commuter rail systems throughout the country will expand from 29 today to 55 by 2050. Commuter rail currently operates on 7,000 miles of track. This is estimated to grow to 22,000 miles in the next 40 years. Heavy rail or metro systems likely will increase from the current 12 to 15. Existing systems are expected to expand much as the Second Avenue Subway in New York City or the line to Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C. have done.
Bill Millar said that light rail and streetcar systems will increase from 27 to 71 by 2050. Track miles for these two, which now total 1,400 miles, will increase to 16,700. Bus systems, including Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), will grow from 443 to 465. Route miles, however, will grow from the current 230,000 to 625,000 as systems expand to feed light rail and commuter rail systems.
From 1970 to the present, heavy rail systems doubled in number from six to 12. Commuter rail likewise increased from 14 to 29, whereas the number of light rails and streetcars nearly quadrupled from 7 to 27.
According to Bill, the expansion of existing systems and the implementation of new systems would cost $1.3 trillion. But for every dollar invested in transit there is a six-fold return. Our $1.3 trillion in expenditures today would result in over $7 trillion worth of benefits to the community.
The Commissioners had many questions for Bill. No other presenter was as provocative and interesting. Because there was not enough time for all our questions, Commission Chairman and DOT Secretary Mary Peters asked that further queries be submitted in writing. I asked Bill for recommendations on how to finance a light-rail system through the increase in property values which accrues in virtually every system. I anxiously await his response.
I'm glad I lived to see the revival of rail systems after the transportation depression of the 1970s. I hope I live to see many new systems built in the future.