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“A nation of travelers” celebrates 50th anniversary of Urban Mass Transportation Act

“A nation of travelers” celebrates 50th anniversary of Urban Mass Transportation Act

Fifty years ago today, in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Urban Mass Transportation Act. It was our country’s first attempt to address the challenges of public transportation as a nation, and it focused on preserving transit as a transportation option.

Photo of L.B.J.Reflecting on the impact of the Urban Mass Transportation Act, President Johnson said, “The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 was the first national recognition of the daily trials faced by the 70 percent of our population who live in the cities of this country. Our overburdened and underfinanced mass transportation systems were nearing paralysis. In 20 years, no other country in the world allowed its passenger rail service in urban areas to deteriorate as badly as we did –and we are the richest, most powerful, and most technically advanced nation on earth!”

Among many projects the first round of grants advanced, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) modernized rail stations; the City of Cleveland extended rail service to Hopkins International Airport; and the City of Vallejo, California, purchased new transit buses. Cities that had been facing the loss of transit services altogether were bolstered by the help provided through Federal assistance.

As President Johnson noted just two years later, “Through the Mass Transportation Act of 1964, we have moved to relieve the choking traffic which robbed us of time, energy, and dollars. That act committed us to better systems for getting our people to work and home again –and getting them there with speed and safety and economy and comfort. Two years have proved its worth.”

1960s photo of New York City elevated rail transit

The ensuing 48 years have continued to prove the law's worth, many times over. No longer just focused on stabilizing legacy systems in large metropolitan areas, the Federal government’s role in public transportation now includes supporting and helping expand transit services in rural areas as well.

Today, transit is flourishing across the country, in big cities, small towns, and tribal lands. In Clarksdale, Mississippi –a town of 18,000– transit is a lifeline connecting people to jobs, schools, doctors, and family. In the Los Angeles metro area –home to more than 16 million– transit makes it possible to commute from one end of the county to another without changing trains, while putting a dent in the city’s infamous traffic.

Public transportation, however, is more than simply a way to move people from one place to another, and the benefits of our transit investments go beyond mobility. In many communities, transit forms the backbone for growth while preserving quality of life and addressing congestion. It attracts private investment that often gives people places to live, shop, and work in walkable neighborhoods. In Salt Lake City, Utah, a combination of light rail, bus, and streetcar transit are helping build transit-oriented communities that better position the region for continued growth. In Kent, Ohio, transit-focused development is both a catalyst for growth and a way of giving graduating university students the kind of lifestyle that is an increasingly important factor in determining where they want to live and work.

“We are a nation of travelers. You cannot write our history without devoting many chapters to the pony express, the stagecoach, the railroad, the automobile, the airplane. . . Yet, until 1964, the Federal Government did little or nothing to help the urban commuter.”

The Federal role in public transit, instigated by the slow-motion disaster of crumbling transportation systems half a century ago, has helped communities recover from more recent --and more sudden-- disasters. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Hurricane Katrina, and Superstorm Sandy, the Federal government’s assistance not only helped restore critical transit services, but also helped renew local economies and bring people together.

In 1966, President Johnson said, “In the next 40 years, we must completely renew our cities … Gaping needs must be met in health, in education, in job opportunities, in housing. And not a single one of these needs can be fully met until we rebuild our mass transportation systems.”

Together, the federal, state and local partnership did perform the difficult work of rebuilding those systems, and that has made it possible for our communities to grow and adapt.

Photo of page 1 of the Urban Mass Transit Act

However, to keep transit safe and reliable, we must listen to President Johnson as the warning in his words is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. Congress must address the $86 billion backlog in transit repair and replacement, which is increasing by more than $2 billion a year. We must expand services to help meet growth across the country.

And we must ensure that transit reaches its full potential as a ladder of opportunity.

The Obama Administration’s GROW AMERICA Act would do all of those things. Just as 50 years ago, when the President and Congress came together to revive public transit, we need that same kind of cooperation today to prepare us for the next 50 years.

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I have one of the original pens used by the President to sign S. 6, an Act to authorize the Housing and Home Finance Administrator to provide additional assistance for the development of comprehensive and oordinatored mass transportation systems, both public and private, in metropolitan and other urban areas, and for other purposes.
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