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Want more jobs? Spend more money on mass transit

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 3, 2010 - The St. Louis area could create more jobs if a greater portion of its transportation funding went to mass transit rather than to building roads and highways, a new study by the Public Policy Research Center of the University of Missouri-St. Louis shows.

St. Louis spends so few of its transportation dollars on mass transit -- only 15 percent -- that it landed at the bottom of a list of 20 cities examined in the study. The finding was part of More Transit = More Jobs, a study commissioned by the Transportation Equity Network (TEN).

The results of the study were announced in press conferences Thursday in 14 cities across the country. The report's author, Todd Swanstrom of the Public Policy Research Center, unveiled the results of the study in Washington, D.C.


TEN is a grassroots network of more than 350 member organizations in 41 states "dedicated to building a more just, prosperous and connected America."

While the metropolitan areas examined in the study spent an average of 37 percent of their transportation dollars on mass transit, St. Louis spends only 15 percent of its transportation improvement program (TIP) dollars on transit, Will Winter, research analyst with the center, said.

The TIP program gets the money the metropolitan planning organization -- East-West Gateway Council of Governments for the St. Louis area -- uses in its long-term plan. The lion's share of the money comes from federal funds. (The draft TIP for 2011-2014 is $1.5 billion.)

The study looked at a group of metropolitan regions and determined how much these regions spend on transit and how much they spend on roads and highways, Winter said.

The researchers found the spending varied from a low 15 percent in St. Louis to a high of 75 percent in New York.

Kansas City, the other Missouri city examined in the study, spends 31 percent of its TIP money on transit.

The top cities after New York are: Honolulu, 66 percent; Portland, Ore., 49 percent; Philadelphia, 48 percent and Kalamazoo, Mich., 42 percent. Chicago came in sixth with 41 percent.

After St. Louis, the bottom cities include: Denver, 16 percent; Atlanta, 20 percent; Boston, 21 percent; and Minneapolis, 26 percent.

"It's a well known finding in the literature that spending money on transit generates more jobs than spending money on highways," Swanstrom said in a teleconference for the press. "The main reason is that transit is more labor intensive in the form of bus drivers and other such personnel," he said. "Also highways involve often more spending on land purchases. Obviously land purchases do not generate jobs."

The study defined a "job" as one full-time position for one year, he said.

Research shows for every billion dollars spent on transit, "you create about 46,000 jobs compared to highway and road construction that creates about 30,000 jobs. So clearly one of the reasons we like to invest in transit is to create jobs," Winter said.

If all 20 of the cities studied shifted 50 percent of their highway funds to transit, it would generate 1.1 million jobs over a five-year period for a net gain of 180,000 jobs over the same period without a single dollar of new spending, Winter said. If St. Louis shifted 50 percent of its transportation funding to transit, that could generate a lot of new jobs -- about 43,000 jobs gross a year.

For example, a North-South MetroLink line would cost $971 million but would create 23,098 jobs, he said.

The researchers also looked how transparent the various planning organizations are in their work. St. Louis did well in that area. "The good news is that St. Louis ranks pretty high on this," Winter said. "East-West Gateway does a pretty good job in terms of providing this information."

The federal government needs to standardize how people can receive information on how transportation funds are spent, Winter said.

Swanstrom noted that his study is different from other studies because it looks at "how spending patterns play out in specific metropolitan areas around the country."

Through “policy simulation,” he and his researchers simulate what would happen if policy was changed at the local level so that 50 percent of transportation money spent went toward transit instead of highways.

The researchers also looked at what would happen if federal transportation priorities changed to also increase spending on transit.

"Also what's new in this study is we used the Transportation Improvement Programs ... that are created by every (metropolitan planning organization) in every major metropolitan area in the country mandated by federal law," he said. The researchers used the TIPS to examine current spending patterns by the MPOs and then simulated what would happen if they changed their priorities.

The cities were chosen because they are major metropolitan areas where TEN has on-going organizing on transportation equity, he said.

The researchers also found that job generation is "directly correlated" to the percent a metro area spends on transit. "The more they spend on transit, according to the formulas generated by economists, the more jobs will be created," he said.

Jim Wild, a division manager at East-West Gateway, said he has seen the report but hasn't looked at it in detail. Still, while he says he doesn't know the methodology the researchers used, it troubles him that they didn't talk to anyone at Gateway.

Using website information on the various regions' TIPS, as the researchers say they did, may not tell the whole story, Wild said.

Researchers said the TIPs the study looked at varied in length from one to six years. Looking at even a four-year tip may not reveal the entire picture, Wild said. For example, last year Metro had to cancel major bus purchases due to its budget shortfall; that would make it appear that little was spent on transit last year. The numbers can also be skewed when big-dollar highway projects like the reconstruction of Interstate 64/Highway 40 and the new Mississippi River Bridge are in the picture.

"I don't think think you can compare the TIPs one-for-one across the country," he said.

The study may be "a snapshot that's not a good reflection of what reality is," Wild said. "It makes sense that investment in transit creates more jobs but in any study like this there's truth and things that have to be proved."

TEN has worked to ensure that women, minorities and low-income persons get their fair share of the jobs from transportation spending. To do that, metropolitan areas around the country are looking at the "Missouri model," the strategy the Missouri Department of Transportation used to include women and minorities in the reconstruction of Interstate 64, Swanstrom said.

At the St. Louis event Adella Jones, director of communications at Metro, said St. Louis found out the crucial role transit plays in the economy when the agency had to slash service in March 2009 because of a major budget shortfall.

"That's when you began to see the face of the transit rider," she said. "You found out that person was going to work. Suddenly that anonymous face was very familiar."

Metro's cutbacks became an "economic story," she said.

Even though the tax increase has restored service, current state and federal policies are "no longer adequate for what people require in their transit product," Jones said. "We saw that in St. Louis. We suffered the pain of it and locally we addressed our need."

Prop A showed what a grassroots effort to do, Jones said. Another grassroots effort could change the way transportation funds are spent, she said.

Darrell Pulliam of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 788, echoed those sentiments. He said the job he got as a Metro bus driver 14 years ago helped him escape poverty and allows him to feed his family and send his children to good schools. It's also enabling him to work on a master's degree, he said.

"Transportation creates jobs," said Linda Dopuch with Metropolitan Congregations United for St. Louis, an affiliate of TEN.

MCU is an interfaith, multi-racial organization of 35 religious congregations in the St. Louis are working " to create a better life for all residents."

"It's time for us to invest in public transportation," she said. "St. Louis can no longer afford to be last on the list."

Kathie Sutin, a freelance writer in St. Louis, covers transportation.