Working People Need Congress To Fund Mass Transit
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Author: John Samuelsen and John Costa
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The COVID-19 nightmare that we all lived through demonstrated the incredible impact federal funding can have when it comes to providing the essential bus and rail service millions of working men and women rely upon.

Operating funds enabled brave frontline transport workers to keep the buses and trains running. Grocery store workers could still get to their jobs and keep the shelves stocked with food. Nurses could get to their hospitals to care for the sick. Firefighters could get to their trucks to battle fires.

Now that the COVID-19 health crisis has passed, however, the federal government is again applying its pre-pandemic policy prohibiting the use of federal funds for operational expenses. Transit agencies receive federal money for capital projects, which include the purchase of new buses, trains, track, and other infrastructure. But they can't use federal allocations for operational expenses: fuel, electricity, wages, and daily maintenance.

American civil rights activist, Rosa Parks (center), riding on a newly integrated bus following a Supreme Court ruling ending the successful 381 day Montgomery bus boycott. (Don Cravens/Getty Images)

So, the government will give a transit agency a lot of money to buy a brand-new electric bus—but not a dime towards hiring an operator to drive it, or a mechanic to maintain it. It makes zero sense. Working people who rely on buses and trains deserve much better.

The Stronger Communities Through Better Transit Act would set things right. Introduced in the U.S. House by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) last month, the legislation would allocate $20 billion annually for four years, specifically so agencies could "make substantial improvements in transit service." That's $80 billion for operations, not capital projects.

With such financial support, agencies could significantly boost their current schedules and run buses and trains more frequently. They could robustlyextend the hours of operation on routes and lines that now areshut down for the night. And they could add entirely new service, like a local or express bus route, in tragicallyunderserved neighborhoods.

Americans in urban, suburban, and rural communities would find it easier to get to work, school, church, the doctor, and many other critically important destinations they need to reach on a daily basis. Blue-collar Americans who are looking for work would have more opportunities opened to them with improved, or completely new transit service, in their communities. The Stronger Communities Through Better Transit Act would dramatically change lives.

As we celebrate Rosa Parks' birthday, it is an ideal day to promote the Act and urge our elected representatives in Congress to pass it. In 2017, a network of unions designated Feb. 4 Transit Equity Day to honor the Civil Rights icon and to highlight the need for a major investment of resources to provide additional bus and rail service.

Parks adamantly refused to give up her seat on bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to a white man in defiance of racist Jim Crow laws nearly 70 years ago. It was a bold, truthful statement that Black Americans in the segregated south were systematically and brutally denied their constitutional right to equal and fair treatment. A bus represented more than just a ride. It was a vehicle of opportunity. It provided access to jobs and a better quality of life. It still does.

Too many neighborhoods still lack adequate transit service. That inexcusable reality, however, could get much worse. Agencies are facing massive operating budget gaps. Ridership has not returned to pre-pandemic levels and the system-saving flow of emergency funding from Washington, D.C., has been turned off. Layoffs and service cuts are looming.

It's not inevitable. Congress should pass the Stronger Communities Through Better Transit Act. If they need inspiration, they need look no further than our COVID-19 heroes and Rosa Parks.

John Samuelsen is international president of the Transport Workers Union and John Costa is international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.

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