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Poll Points to Strong Support for Public Transit Projects

A poll conducted by the Sierra Club with voters on the East Coast found bipartisan support for transit and other projects that would reduce air pollution and climate change.

Voters from across the East Coast's political spectrum seem to agree that public investment in public transit and cleaner air is needed, at least according to a recent poll.

The Sierra Club's Transportation Modernization Survey was released June 28 and concluded that voters overwhelmingly support regional approaches to transit and transportation problems, with 73 percent of respondents “consider[ing] air pollution to be a serious problem.”

“We found that a large majority of voters consider air pollution to be a serious problem. And regional action to reduce pollution from the transportation sector attracts bipartisan support among voters across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states,” said Jim Williams, polling analyst with Public Policy Polling, during a conference call with reporters.

The survey polled 4,037 voters across Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and the District of Columbia. Sixty percent of the survey was conducted via telephone, and 40 percent was conducted online to reach cellphone-only voters. The margin of error was +/- 1.6 percent.

The findings suggest that 68 percent of voters consider climate change to be a very serious problem, Williams explained.

“So pretty strong consensus here on all of these issues,” said Williams. “And I would like to add that in this day and age of such polarization, it’s highly unusual to see support for anything in the 70s, in the 80s. It’s pretty unusual to see Republicans and Democrats agree on anything. But that is what we’re seeing here. So I think that’s pretty significant.”

The poll drifted heavily toward issues of air pollution, the causes of air pollution, and approaches to combating it, such as through increasing the use of electric vehicles. In fact, 83 percent of voters polled said cars and trucks contribute at least somewhat to air pollution, including 42 percent who say they contribute “a great deal.”   

“Transportation is now the leading source of U.S. emissions impacting climate change,” said Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit focused on transit in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. “And unlike power plants and heavy industry, we’re not doing enough as a region, as a nation, to combat the impact of hundreds of millions of cars, trucks and other polluting vehicles on our roads.”

What seemed most striking, transit advocates said, is the apparent disconnect between the public and their own elected officials.

Brian O’Malley, president and CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, pointed to cuts in public transit by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, and reallocating more than $1 billion of that money toward highway and bridge funding. 

“Now, MDOT (Maryland Department of Transportation,) is pursuing adding lanes to I-270, I-495, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, I-695, and I-95 north of Baltimore. At the same time it is cutting the capital budget for the Maryland Transit Administration by more than half over the next six years,” O’Malley said.

“These poll results indicate that Marylanders want their tax dollars invested differently,” he added.

The highway projects are part of Maryland’s Traffic Relief Plan, a strategy aimed at easing congestion, and praised by Hogan.

Some 71 percent of voters polled in Maryland said they support elected officials taking action to reduce air pollution from autos by investing in transit, electric vehicles and other clean-air options, the survey results show.

In New York and New Jersey governors have signaled a willingness to address declining transit systems in both states through various approaches, “but so far it’s just talk,” said Sifuentes.

“Neither governor nor their legislatures have actually approved increased funding,” he added. 

“If we can’t fix transit in the most transit-dependent part of the United States, what does that say of us as a region? And what does it say of us as a country?” said Sifuentes, calling for wholesale upgrades to electric buses and other vehicles, that do not rely so heavily on fossil fuels.

To be sure, public transit upgrades are costly, often sailing into billions of dollars. In May, voters in Nashville, Tenn., soundly rejected a $5.4 billion transit infrastructure plan calling for light rail lines, bus improvements and a 1.8-mile underground tunnel. The plan had the support of many business groups and younger Nashvillians in downtown neighborhoods. But when its biggest cheerleader, former Mayor Megan Barry, was forced to step down following a personal scandal, the transit plan seemed to lose some valuable momentum.

“So Part I is just the cost and that legislators are always a little bit nervous about that,” said Sifuentes, exploring some of the headwinds large transit projects must overcome.

“And Part II is a lot of legislators are short-sighted. Folks aren’t looking beyond the next election. And what we need now is we don’t need politicians, we need statesmen. We need the kind of people who are going to stand up and say, ‘we need to look decades ahead, and make sure that transit is actually built out,’” he added.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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