President-elect Barack Obama has been in the news a lot lately asking Congress to help nudge the nation out of its economic slump with massive new spending. He and others hope that the federal government can spur job creation and growth by spending on alternative energy, education, health care and infrastructure. Predictably, advocates for spending in various areas have come out of the woodwork. As a public transit advocate, it is no surprise that I would support additional spending for public transit. And I concede that if Obama is successful in convincing Congress to spend money, additional jobs will be created no matter what priorities are identified. Public transit, however, is a great investment because it can deliver a big bang for the buck.

In a report published a little over a year ago, researchers at UMass Amherst looked at the effects on job creation of government spending in various broad economic sectors including defense (currently the largest piece of the US discretionary spending pie), tax cuts for personal consumption, health care and education. Surprisingly, though spending in education ultimately had a greater impact in terms of total wages and benefits added to the economy, the greatest number of jobs created was with investment in mass transit.

Below is a portion of the researcher’s table of the effects of spending $1 billion on various priorities:

Currently, transit agencies are having a hard time bringing in adequate money from state and federal sources to keep aging fleets in working order. At the same time, the most transit-dependent passengers including the working poor, the elderly and disabled are less able to pay for increased fares. An injection of new federal dollars into transportation could help improve service while keeping fares low. This would boost ridership and help the economy as increased mobility would allow people to pursue a broader array of opportunities.

So far, the President-elect has not championed public transit. In particular, his choice of Republican Congressman Ray LaHood for Transportation Secretary baffled many advocates. LaHood has not had much expertise in transportation and has not taken the lead on any major legislative issues related to transit. This lead many advocates to fear that Obama’s administration would not be focusing on public transit as a first priority. A stimulus package that includes a strong investment in public transit would help allay those fears.