The 1% Don't Ride Public Transit


The people making decisions about transit are rarely the ones riding it.

A powerful op-ed from Mutual Aid Strategies.

When one’s experience getting from point A to point B on a daily basis is being chauffeured in a town car behind tinted glass, isolated in a pod from humanity, and any possibility of friendship or congress with human beings, it may be difficult to understand the concept of public transit. Unfortunately, its seems more and more in this country those are the people making the policy decisions that affect public transit.

The fate of our public transit systems, and unfortunately our entire nation’s crumbling transportation infrastructure, still lay in the balance this week.  Yesterday the Senate failed in getting the necessary 60 votes needed to invoke cloture, end debate, and move to a vote on its bipartisan Surface Transportation package.  Meanwhile the House chose an interesting means of moving forward, which seems to have fallen flat on its face.

It seems that the House Republican leadership was faced with crumbling support for their awful and inherently flawed energy-infrastructure package, and decided to split the bill into three sections that they believe would have a better chance of passing independently.

As a result the House intended to consider H.R. 7 as three separate packages: one focusing on transportation, one on energy production that will include language on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and the third dealing with federal pensions. The idea of splitting the measure is that House members would be able to “vote their consciences” on pieces of the bill without requiring them to vote on the entire thing. For instance, lawmakers could vote for the authorizing portions of the surface transportation title while voting against the changes to federal employee pensions. Then, if all the bills are passed separately, the House’s bill clerk would sew them back together and send them to the Senate as one bill.

The energy package (H.R. 3408) — which includes an expansion of oil shale exploration, new offshore leasing and an expansion of drilling in Alaska – passed the House on Thursday night by a vote of 237 in favor to 187 against, 21 Republicans voted against the bill, and 21 Democrats voted in favor of it.

However it seems that was about as far as they got, because on Wednesday the 15th, House Speaker John Boehner pulled the transportation bill from the floor, announcing that he was delaying the vote on the $260 billion transportation bill (HR 7) that was scheduled this week.  The House now waits to take it up again, and it will likely not be completed until after the President’s Day week recess, and even that is looking unlikely.

As much as Boehner uses double speak about this being a part of a transparent process, this debacle demonstrates that GOP leaders lack the votes to win approval of the package.  The politics they are playing with this bill (of which I’ve been critical) seem to now be biting them in the ass.

It seems there was some discussion in the Republican House Caucus this week over the use of one of the offsets in this package — a requirement that federal employees pay a greater share of their pension contributions (HR 3813) — which now seems (at least in part) to be included in the deal on the payroll tax cut extension instead. What that means for this House Surface Transportation package remains to be seen.

What is still evident is that the transportation piece of this legislation still threatens our nation’s public transportation systems through the controversial transit funding change that would move the mass transit account out of the Highway Trust Fund and open it up to the appropriations process. Urban Republicans and Democrats alike have come out against that move, saying it would jeopardize the long-term future of transit and could lead to cost-cutting, and they are correct in that assessment.

Policy ideas like the House’s controversial transit funding change demonstrate how out of touch some of the policy makers on Capitol Hill are with the realities that face the 99% of Americans on a daily basis.

When thinking about transportation in the United States, do these policy makers realize that currently in the United States nearly two-thirds of all residents in small towns and rural communities have few if any transportation options, that 41% of the population have no access to transit; and another 25% live in areas with below-average transit services?

Do they understand how that may relate to the statistics that nearly 20 percent of African-American households, 14 percent of Latino households, and 13 percent of Asian households live without a car?

Are they thinking about the 50% of older people who do not drive in the United States that stay home on a given day because they lack transportation options?

Is there any consideration for the nearly one in five Americans who face a physical challenge that impacts their ability to travel for their daily needs (i.e. use of wheelchair or diminished vision, hearing, or physical movement)?

It’s obvious to me that those drafting the mass transit provisions in H.R. 7 either aren’t thinking about these sectors of the population, are ignorant of these issues, or simply do not care.  How else do you explain including heavy-handed federal mandates forcing wholesale privatization of public transit systems? The elimination of dedicated funding for mass transit and replacing it with a mechanism that makes it necessary for transit advocates to fight to receive adequate funding every appropriations cycle year after year?

It seems obvious that these policy makers are either unaware, ignorant, or callously ignoring the fact that in the last year, more than 80 percent of the nation’s transit systems proposed to or already have eliminated transit routes, cut service hours, increased fares, or a combination of all of these. This is occurring even at a time when ridership on mass transit is at an all-time high and the need for affordable transportation and sustaining transportation jobs couldn’t be higher.

Instead of pushing through an ideological agenda hell-bent on shrinking government, driven by an obsession with free market solutions, that will devastate local transit agencies, jeopardize needed services and threaten jobs in mass transit, our nation’s policy makers should look at how the poor management ruining service delivery; the aging buses plaguing a city; or the inadequate investment that is causing mass disrepair of city infrastructure can be solved through investment and sensible reform.

We need to be sending this message to our nation’s policy makers.  They need to consider that transportation is the second largest expense, after housing, for households in the United States, surpassing food, clothing, and healthcare costs.  The affluent politicians driving the debate on public transit, may need an education about how low- and moderate-income households spend 42 percent of their total annual income on transportation, including those who live in rural areas, as compared to even middle-income households, who still spend almost 22 percent of their annual income on transportation.

Luckily, there are people in the United States working to make sure that our nation’s policy makers consider all of these factors.

Earlier this week, on February 13 and 14, I attended the New York State Transportation Equity Alliance’s (NYSTEA) two-day transportation equity conference in Albany.

After spending the majority of my time last week mired in what lead up to the above-described dealings with the surface transportation debate here in Washington, DC, it was nice to escape the beltway and head up to Albany NY, to have some great discussions with folks about why public transit matters to our nations communities, why public transportation needs to be adequately funded, and the importance of assuring that the riding public is represented on transit authority boards.

The conference was attended by key representatives of the organizations comprising the NYSTEA Coalition and the event was also open to other transportation advocates and practitioners around the state.  (Click here to view a complete conference agenda.)

The Monday morning session focused on the state transit funding situation in New York, and the need for change.  The panel provided the perspectives from state administration and transit authorities on their difficulties, while including the effects on the riding public.

At noon, all of us at the conference joined NYSTEA at a Transit Awareness Day rally in the “well” of the Legislative Office Building, and urged Albany to invest in transit and keep New York moving.  The rally was co-sponsored by the New York Public Transit Association (NYPTA) and NYSTEA and brought transit riders and operators together. By joining voices, we delivered our message loud and clear that public transportation needs funding!

The rally served to remind New York’s policy makers that when Albany short-changes transit, New Yorkers can’t get to work.  The good news is that the increased state operating assistance in Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget could mitigate upstateservice cuts, but the rally served to remind the legislature that they must address long-term transit funding before it is too late. This is a sentiment we all need to be echoing on a national basis.

The rally was followed by a panel on Rider Representation, which was moderated by Cecil Corbin-Mark from WE ACT for Environmental Justice, and included Vincent Crehan, ATU Local 1342 and NFTA Board MemberEsperanza Martinez, Bus Riders Unionand Leah Golby, Capital Region Transit Advocates. The panel focused on the need for the voting representation of transit riders on transit authority boards, difficulties posed by board dynamics, and challenges faced in campaigns. It seems only logical that on a local, state, and federal basis the decisions that affect our nation’s transit systems should have input from the people who ride and depend on public transit.  The Surface Transportation bills in front of the U.S. House and Senate would benefit incalculably from such input.

Later on Monday afternoon, I participated in a panel discussion organized by the local NY State Apollo Alliance.  The topic of the panel was “Jobs through Transit” and also featured President John Samuelsen of Transport Workers Union Local 100John Loughran a transportation planner from FXFOWLE, and Ed Murphy of the Workforce Development Institute.  Our discussion focused on the variety of ways that expanded transit service can put New Yorkers back to work. From the manufacturers who build buses, to the drivers who operate them, to the builders of transit-oriented communities, investment in public transit means good, green jobs for New Yorkers.

Throughout the day there were great discussions on equity issues in transportation and issues facing transit riders, and I’d like to thank Cecil Corbin Mark and Jake Carlson from WE-ACTPeter Fleischer from Empire State FutureElizabeth Yeampierre ofUPROSE, and Jeff Jones from the New York State Apollo Alliance for bringing me up to Albany, NY so I could partake in the day’s activities.

Tuesday morning kicked of a day of legislative advocacy, with a panel on the need for transit justice organizing in New York State. The panel drew on the experiences of groups doing the work upstate (VOICE Buffalo), downstate (UPROSE), and across the country (Bus Riders Union).  The panelists then lead breakout sessions that went into some training and strategies around organizing – including recruitment and base-building, communications, and power-mapping and coalition building.

It was an experience I wish all the elected officials looking to slash the funding of public transit could have had.  Maybe, if some of them got out of their chauffeured vehicles, and looked out from behind their tinted windows, and actually mingled with some of us on the bus or the subway, they’d do a better job governing. But alas, the 1% don’t seem to ride public transit…

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