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The Simpsons Figured It Out: There are Plenty of Reasons to Expand Public Transit

This post originally appeared on the Alliance for American Manufacturing blog.

A recent episode of "The Simpsons" shed some new light on Springfield, USA’s public transit system. According to the Atlantic Cities blog, the last we saw of the Springfield Transit Authority’s subway system—a simplistic loop, reminiscent of Detroit’s People Mover—it was mostly out of service.

And while this subway might not have a place in fans’ hearts like its poorly planned Monorail does…

...At least we’ve got an update on it. And the 2014 Springfield public transit system resembles a more complex system that we would see in Chicago, New York or Washington, D.C. Maybe the system got more complex to meet the challenges of higher urban density, or to respond to new trends growing among millennials. Or maybe the city has a growing number of residents like Grandpa Simpson who, as they age, find themselves in need of expanded transit options.

It could have been any number of reasons. But many viewers will no doubt have noticed that despite its expansion, Springfield’s subway still looks a little grubby and, in direct reflection of much of the real-world infrastructure we rely on day to day, it generally looked rundown.

Those of us who ride public transit on a regular basis don’t need reminding that the United States is falling behind on repairs and upgrades to its infrastructure, but for those who do: The American Society of Civil Engineers recently awarded America’s infrastructure a “D” grade. A “D,” for the transportation infrastructure critical to increasing GDP, employment, household income and exports and for America’s long-term economic growth. And if we continue to deprioritize these necessary fixes and upgrades, there will be more bad grades in the future.

So Why Fix It Now?

Transportation is already the second largest expense for American households after housing. It costs more than food, clothing and health care costs. In fact, low- and moderate-income households spend 42 percent of their total annual income on transportation. Middle-income households still spend a load on it, too; almost 22 percent of their annual income goes to transportation. And in an attempt to save on those costs, Americans who do have access to public transit have increased their ridership 9.1 percent in the past decade.

But many more needs are going unmet; nearly two-thirds of all residents in small towns and rural communities have few transportation options; 41 percent of the population have no access to transit; and another 25 percent live in areas with below-average transit services. And nearly 20 percent of African American households, 14 percent of Latino households and 13 percent of Asian households live without a car. On a given day, 50 percent of older people who do not drive in the United States stay home because they lack transportation options, and that lack of options also presents a serious challenge to the nearly one in five Americans who face a physical challenge that impacts their ability to travel for their daily needs.

But That’s Not All

Access to good public transit is something that American businesses rely on as well. Every $10 million invested in public transportation results in a $30 million gain in sales for local businesses due to increased foot traffic and decreased congestion on roadways. And those businesses located near public transportation benefit from more employee reliability and less absenteeism and turnover. Employers that can rely on public transit options have a larger labor pool from which to choose, and employees are happier because they aren’t behind the wheel, navigating through congestion delays. One survey of high-tech and green firms shows that 77 percent of respondents rated access to mass transit as an extremely important factor in business location decisions.

And there are down-the-line benefits, too. Consider that once transit service is expanded, an investment in transit vehicles and equipment becomes necessary. That’s good news for those in the supply chains for public transit bus, rail vehicles and clean trucks, which support about 40,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs. While relatively small in number today, those jobs are spread across all 50 states, among more than 320 existing companies that could scale up to meet expanded demand. Studies have shown that every $1 billion invested in public transit creates around 1,400 manufacturing jobs (login required).

And that’s important. Economists have established that manufacturing jobs have among the highest indirect job creation benefits: On average, each manufacturing job supports 2.5 jobs in other sectors and, at the upper end, each high-tech manufacturing job supports 16 jobs. Those jobs pay 21 percent more in wages and benefits than the average for the entire economy, and they more often provide health, pension and other benefits than positions in other corners of the economy.

So in Conclusion…

There are reasons upon reasons to support public infrastructure. Not only because it increases convenience—that transit expansion in Springfield will allow Bart and Lisa to explore the attractions near stops like Mattress City, Guidopolis, the Varmint District and Queasy Street, where hijinks will definitely ensue—but also because it has the potential to help support manufacturing jobs, like those that employ Roscoe and his co-workers at Springfield’s Ajax Steel Mill.

There are opportunities all over the map. But a hesitance to fund these fixes in the name of fiscal austerity is common in American politics these days. That’s a shortsighted view. Transit infrastructure greatly improves the competitiveness of the economy that hosts it. It’s really as simple as that.

Follow the Alliance for American Manufacturing and writer Brian Lombardozzi on Twitter.
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