Think We Can? 

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Traveling through Italy a few years back, my family joked that most posted rules and regulations were "just a suggestion."

Speed limits along the Autostrada?

Cars and trucks zipped by, leaving us in their dust.

Tickets for a bus ride across Venice? No one ever asked for proof that we'd paid.

Infectious casualness came to mind last week when my children traded their car keys for long-distance travel on mass transportation. My daughter sped, so to speak, to and from Washington, D.C., by Amtrak. My son left the driving to Greyhound on his way back to a summer internship in Philadelphia.

In both cases, the actual departure time bore no resemblance to the scheduled one. At the Staples Mill station in suburban Richmond, we lolled as trains came and went, just not hers. Finally, about 90 minutes late, we kissed goodbye.

Good thing no one had left dinner in the oven or waited to walk the dog.

The next morning, we showed up about 20 minutes early for a 7:30 a.m. bus. Granted, the ticket agent had recommended an hour, but who knew bookings were so oversold that when the bus filled up, half a load of bleary-eyed travelers would still be in line?

Thirty-five minutes later, a second bus -- commandeered from the back lot — pulled out with my son on it. The earlier schedule had given him just 15 minutes to switch buses in Baltimore. I figured his chances of getting to work on time in midafternoon in Philly had deteriorated from dicey to zero. No paycheck that day.

So, why is it that, well past the tipping point of public acceptance of the need to quell carbon emissions and unclog highways, it's still so difficult to make mass transportation work?

Why, when my husband visited Berlin last winter, was he able to sashay up to a bus stop and be informed by an electronic signboard that a bus would arrive in precisely seven minutes (which it did), while in the technologically advanced U.S.A., bus and train schedules so often remain "just a suggestion"?

That's a rhetorical question, of course. Whole books have dissected the American predilection for the freedom and self-actualization of the open road vs. the more communal European attitude toward travel. That translates into public policies heavily tilted toward mass transit in Europe and heavily geared toward Detroit, or what's left of it, here.

Toss in a few characteristics unique to Virginia, such as the fact that the entire rail infrastructure is owned by and must accommodate freight lines, and it's not hard to understand backups. But understanding is no substitute for fixing. It's past time to tailor a more disciplined system.

This comes as no surprise. A 2004 long-range study of rail needs, prepared by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, summed up the situation nicely: "Capacity and congestion problems today are eroding the productivity of our transportation system. Travel time and cost are increasing, service reliability is decreasing, and the ability of the system to recover from emergencies and disruptions of service is severely taxed."

One piece of good news: Not only highways will benefit from the transportation package approved by the General Assembly last winter. To be sure, the bulk of the revenue still centers on auto-related travel. But money from higher taxes, redirected priorities and even the much maligned abusive-driver fees will also help improve rail and local bus service.

This year's $624 million budget for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation is the highest in its 15-year history. And the 2008-2013 transportation plan approved by the Commonwealth Transportation Board includes a 41 percent increase for transit and a 68 percent increase for rail over the previous six-year plan.

Citizens need to keep pushing for those numbers to expand.

If travel by bus or train is sometimes slow and unpredictable, it's important to remember that so is travel by car. While I was complaining about schedules and delays, a Chesapeake friend was spending more than 11 hours driving to and from Columbia, Md. In the old days, you might make that trip in eight to nine.

And my crew? My daughter's train arrived at Union Station two hours after she left Richmond, not bad. My son wasn't supposed to change buses in Washington. He did. He was supposed to change in Baltimore. He didn't. And the bus pulled into Philly at 2:25 p.m.

Amazingly, that was exactly on time. Everything else about the printed schedule was just a suggestion. S

Copyright The Virginian-Pilot.

Margaret Edds is an editorial writer, based in Richmond, for The Virginian- Pilot, where this column first appeared.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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