Mass transit too crucial to ignore
One key to any prosperous economy is a transportation system that works–that allows workers to get to their jobs and goods to move efficiently. But this essential economic building block is now under severe pressure. What should be getting stronger is getting weaker–and our economy will suffer the consequences.
Across the country, there has been a surge in transit ridership. This reflects smart planning and clogged roads. As more people turn to mass transit, our environment and economy benefit.
But in the brutal recession, transit agencies across the country are being forced to raise fares, cut service, shut down lines and lay off workers. Workers find it harder and more costly to get to jobs. Roads get more crowded. Good transit jobs are lost, and unemployment rises.
The numbers are stark. A new report by Transportation for America and the Transportation Equity Network reveals that 90 percent of transit systems have had to raise fares or cut workers in past year. Ten of the largest systems have had to hike fares by more than 10 percent. And it is going to get worse.
The recession has devastated state and local budgets. And the federal system of funding transportation is badly skewed. Only 18 cents of every transportation dollar supports transit. Worse, the law perversely prohibits cities from using their federal funds to keep buses and trains running, to preserve service. They can use their federal funds only for capital needs–on construction or new equipment.
We are facing a transit crisis. We should make a serious commitment to strengthening our public transit systems. This is a jobs program. Rebuild the rail, make the steel in Gary, Birmingham and Pittsburgh. Make the buses and trains in Detroit. Make the windmills in Indiana. Put America back to work.
This is a green program. Mass transit reduces the use of oil, the clouds of exhaust, the gridlocked roads. All this saves energy and makes the air less toxic.
What we need is action. The Recovery Act last year allocated $8 billion for high speed rail and $50 billion total for surface projects, but the bulk of that went to highway repair, projects that could be started quickly. The recently passed Jobs for Main Street act stripped most infrastructure spending from the bill.
We need to think bigger. First, we have to change the policies that choke off funding for urban transit. Congress should immediately pass the bill introduced by Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.) that would allow cities with populations of more than 200,000 to use up to 50 percent of their federal transit funding for operating expenses. Second, Congress should pass the comprehensive transport bill, increasing our investment in transportation, and ensuring that the jobs that are created stay here in America.
Then Congress should pass the legislation championed by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Rep Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) for a national investment bank. The National Infrastructure Development Bank Act would combine public and private investment to help fund the 21st century infrastructure we need to be competitive in the world economy. Public guarantees could unlock the workers’ money in public and private pension funds, creating jobs while building the foundation for a new economy.
This is a country in deep economic trouble. Some 25 million are unemployed. Wages are declining. Good jobs are being sent overseas. We can’t go back to an economy built on financial speculation and bubbles. We have to build a solid foundation for a strong economy where America makes things again. Mass transit–fast trains, metros, bus lines–is vital to an efficient economy. Cut back on policing the world, maintaining more than 800 bases while fighting two wars at the same time. Require billionaire equity fund managers to pay at least the same tax rate as their secretaries. Tax the big banks to get our money back. And then invest in rebuilding America.