If next week’s inauguration extravaganza goes off without a hitch, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority will be the unsung hero. But I doubt the four-day celebration of our 44th president will go entirely as anticipated.

Transportation planners are projecting crowds of about two million, and the task of moving these masses in and out of the same mile-long stretch in downtown Washington seems to have caught WMATA off guard. With main roads and bridges into Washington closed to car traffic, tourists and other inauguration watchers will be forced onto overcrowded buses and trains.

The Washington Post is reporting possible delays of up to eight hours, and Metro is telling visitors staying within a two-mile radius of the inauguration site that walking will be faster than riding. For fans of gallows humor, check out a recent Washington Post inauguration blog post titled “Poll Suggests Wave of Humanity Will Crush D.C. to Rubble.” Perhaps the doomsayers who predicted that Obama’s election would bring Armageddon were on to something.

Public transit meltdowns occur in cities across the nation. On Oct. 31, hundreds of thousands of people were stranded in Philadelphia after the regional rail service was overwhelmed by crowds celebrating the Phillies’ World Series win. Philadelphia’s transit system was barely able to operate at about 30 percent over its daily capacity of one million; Washington is being asked to move millions of people when peak ridership is just over 800,000 in one day and capacity is 120,000 people per hour.

If nothing else, the coverage of the inauguration provides a chance to discuss perhaps the most unglamorous aspect of urban living – transportation. Not many people give much thought to the mundane business of getting from point A to point B. Schools, policing, parks, gentrification – these are the policy issues on most people’s minds.

Transportation and infrastructure are just expected to work; traffic lights, subways, electricity and faucets are just not in the same category as crime and education. But perhaps we need to change our way of thinking when our bridges are collapsing and your average Metro commuter can “expect delays.”

America’s love affair with the automobile is no secret. Ever since General Motors bought up all the streetcar companies in the 1950s and began tearing up tracks, we Americans have been guzzling gas and paving paradise. Now, half a century later, in the middle of a bad breakup due to erratic gas prices and impending environmental calamity, public transportation is everyone’s favorite rebound. Oh, how they come crawling back.

Ridership has increased in transit systems across the country. Metro’s numbers were up 5 percent between July and October 2008 and up 3 percent in November.

But while increasing ridership is as good for the environment as it is for commuters’ pocketbooks, we have yet to make transportation policy a priority. That means increased demand but decreasing quality of service, outdated transportation infrastructure and overburdened transit systems. While roads and highways have dedicated funding sources on local, state and federal levels, transit projects languish for years without securing funding. The Washington area’s two premier transit projects, the proposed Metro Silver line to Dulles Airport in Virginia and the Purple line light-rail proposal in suburban Maryland, have been in the planning stages for decades, their fortunes rising and falling with government balance sheets. Meanwhile, congestion on area roads has only increased.

A centerpiece of President-elect Obama’s economic recovery plan is creating jobs and reducing our energy dependence by retrofitting and modernizing old bridges, roads and public buildings. But what our nation needs is not merely a revamping of existing infrastructure but the creation of new, more environmentally and economically sound ways of getting around. That means finding the money to construct and operate the many transit projects that are currently backlogged – among them the Silver line, the Purple line and the Corridor Cities Transitway in northern Montgomery County.

It also means supporting high-speed intercity passenger rail as a viable alternative to our national highway system, as well as more robust funding and major upgrades for our existing public transit infrastructure (especially for those systems where revenues cannot keep pace with rising operating costs).

While all of this may seem too expensive against the backdrop our economic realities, every dollar of public money invested in mass transit yields up to $6 in benefits. We need to take this opportunity to make public transportation a more efficient, attractive and viable alternative.

Sebastian Johnson is a junior in the College and is studying abroad at the London School of Economics in England. He can be reached at johnsonthehoya.com. Tale of Two Cities appears every other Monday on www.thehoya.com.

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