Public Transportation In America: How It Stalled And Where It's Going

Download Audio
Frederick P. Salvucci, former Secretary of Transportation for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts under Governor Michael Dukakis, at WBUR. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Frederick P. Salvucci, former Secretary of Transportation for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts under Governor Michael Dukakis, at WBUR. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Around the world, subway projects are booming. New metros have sprung up or are in the works in Brazil, Saudi Arabia and India, and China announced several years ago that it would build 25 new subway systems. But in the United States, investment in new subways has lagged.

Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson talks to Fred Salvucci, senior lecturer in civil and environmental engineering at MIT and former Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation, about what state and local governments should be doing about transportation for the future.

Interview Highlights: Fred Salvucci

Why hasn’t the U.S. built a big subway in recent years?

“Well, it needs a lot of money, and there has not been sufficient political will to put money into the subway systems. Some cities are moving, but not fast enough. In my view, we need the federal government to help.”

Why is there no political will or support for public transit systems?

“Well, partly it’s because they’re lumpy. The demand for very dense communities that are best served with rail systems are in 50 to 100 metropolitan areas. They need public transportation to grow, and it’s that economic link that can help build a political will to do it. But from the perspective of most states, there’s a big bias in the federal program towards funding highways more than transit and there’s a political bias within most states where the rural and suburban parts of the state need to be convinced ‘why are we putting money into a transit system?’ So politically it’s tough.”

How many metropolitan areas actually possess the density that necessitates a subway system?

“An actual subway system, maybe, 20. But I wouldn’t denigrate the light rail systems. They’re important building blocks towards - our subway started out as a street-car line and eventually, as it got enough people on it, and as the streets got crowded enough with street cars, eventually there was the political will to build the first subway in America.”

How did you get the federal government to help you build out the subway system in Massachusetts in the 70s?

“Part of the dynamic of what was happening, politically, is that there was nationwide support for the public works program, which in most of the country meant highways. The urban areas made it clear that they would no longer support the program unless there was more money for transit. So they had their arguments, but in the end they came together on a joint program of highways and transit. Even Ronald Reagan, not usually thought of as an urban advocate, added 5 cents a gallon to the gas tax, four cents for highways, one cent for transit.”

Who got him to do that?

“His secretary of transportation, who was from Chicago and was an advocate, understood the value of transit for growing the economy in urban areas. So the public works program for decades was very bipartisan. Republicans, Democrats, and you know, there’s Ronald Reagan, ‘read my lips, no new taxes,’ I know that was Bush, but that philosophy, and he added a nickel to the gas tax, with a penny of that for transit.”

That’s all that was needed? A penny to do the things that were done?

“Well, it helped. That was on a base of other monies that were already being spent. We also had highways in urban areas that we genuinely didn’t want. A lot of us worked hard to stop those highways, and then make the case that we should be entitled to that equivalent amount of money to put into subways, to put into buying – most of the transit progress you saw in the 70s and 80s was financed out of the decision to stop those urban highways and shift the money towards transit. So the red line, the orange line relocation, but also all of the red, orange and blue line vehicles you look at were bought with that money. Almost all of the commuter rail equipment and all of the refurbishing of the commuter rail tracks came out of the money cashed in for not building the urban highways. Those vehicles are now 50 years old and they have to be replaced, but there was a huge opportunity for those of us lucky enough to see that the roadways were going to be destructive and we had a better way to use that money.”

And you have said that we cannot repeat that process today because the money is needed for existing infrastructure to be repaired and upgraded.

“Yeah, and what’s been missing for a couple of decades really is the serious kind of bipartisan support for building infrastructure because even though many of the rural states wanna use every penny for roadways, they were part of the consensus for more money for public works, so the urban areas would say, ‘well give me transit.’ And the rural areas would say, ‘that’s fine, that’s more highway money for me.’ Between the two you had a good coalition supporting the money for infrastructure. With the Tea Party philosophy, that you can get something for nothing, nobody’s willing to step up to the plate and admit that if we want better roads and a better transit system, we’re gonna have to pay for them, and the gas tax is a pretty good way to pay for them.”

And it hasn’t been raised in decades?

“In decades, and I payed less than two dollars a gallon a couple of weeks ago and I can drive within five miles of my house I can easily find gas stations that are charging 20 cents a gallon more than others, so I wouldn’t even notice if they put a nickel on the gas tax.”

Well, why don’t they do it right now?

“I think one key problem is the loss in credibility of government. That the average citizen looks at that and says, ‘they will raise my gas tax, I don’t believe they’ll put the money into the roads and transit systems.’ They, you know, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. I’m not going to trust you again. That lack of trust, for a long time it was very clear that the money went into the transportation program, be it highway or transit, was definitely going to go into upgrading the infrastructure and was gonna happen in timely fashion. They’ve played so many games, making it difficult to get that money, difficult to use that money, that it’s lost that credibility. That’s the piece that’s broken, people don’t believe that the government’s going to deliver that better system. If you really believe it, I think a majority of people would support it. The problem is, ‘I know they’re gonna tax me, I don’t know they’re going to give it to me in better service.’”

What is the solution? How does the U.S. start investing again into public transit?

“Well, if the state said, yes we’re going to increase your fare, but here are 20 bus lines whose frequencies are going to be improved. We’re going to make the ride better. We’re going to fully fund these services. The link between the payment, whether it’s for fares or for taxes and delivering better service, that link has to be made credible again, and it has not been credible lately.”


  • Fred Salvucci, senior lecturer in civil and environmental engineering at MIT and former Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation.

This segment aired on April 13, 2016.


More from Here & Now

Listen Live