In a saner world, these would be the glory days for public transit in the U.S. The high stakes of hopeless congestion and changing commuter preferences combined with remarkable technological advances have created an environment in which a robustly funded, state-of-the art public transit network could be at the center of our modern economy. But underinvestment and wrongheaded policies are holding us back, as they have for decades, leaving our public transit systems and their employees and passengers reeling at a time of record ridership.
At a time when Congress and the President debate options for fixing a Highway Trust Fund – which funds both highways and transit – that is going broke, we know that innovative finance proposals will also be considered. Whether it’s an existing program or a new one, we will insist on the application of worker protections that have applied to the federal transit program since its inception in the 1960s.
Sadly, as federal transit investments have diminished, cash-strapped municipalities have often been lured by privatization advocates who too often over-promise and underperform. And despite the flashy rhetoric about all the ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit offered by private bidders, there is ample evidence of botched transit privatizations when local systems have handed over the keys to operations. There is a well-financed movement across America, much of it spurred by foreign corporations, that seeks congressional support for unwise and unwanted privatization mandates. Their heavy-handed proposals should be discarded and the federal government should maintain its neutrality on transit privatization. Decisions about whether to privatize are better left with local and state public sector leaders.
Transit safety reforms must be a part of any reauthorization bill. Neglected transit systems are facing safety challenges that are a product of aging equipment and infrastructure and inadequate workforce training and development. There has also been an alarming rise in physical assaults against transit workers. Bus drivers have borne the brunt of this violence, highlighting the need for a series of new measures to protect them.
As a backdrop to these problems is the continued budget crisis facing too many local transit systems. Even as ridership reaches record levels, transit operations are failing to invest in their systems and their workforce. In fact, even as demand for transit continues to rise, transit agencies are laying off workers, deferring investments that will make their systems safer and more modern, eliminating routes, and reducing services for transit-dependent people.
There is a fix that can work without the need for additional funds: provide some flexible financing options for public transit system. This reform represents smart policy, as it would give transit systems the option to spend some of the capital dollars currently reserved primarily for new bus purchases on maintaining services and jobs that may otherwise face cuts. A real life case in point is Seattle, a city with the nation’s 8th largest transit system. Due to funding shortfalls, Seattle cut approximately 17 percent of its transit and hundreds of jobs, all at a time of high transit demand for the city. These damaging cuts could have been avoided with some minor tweaking of transit budget policy.
Stay tuned – we’ll take a deeper dive into our public transit agenda later this month.