Highway to Hell: Transit Change Needed in Stimulus Package

President Obama's stimulus package presents a challenge: a choice between real change or business as usual. The Presidents' focus on "shovel ready" capital projects that advance the highway lobby compromises his mission of social justice and reversing global warming. At a time when the world is 1 degree warmer with at least another degree in the pipeline the proposed allocation of $27 billion for highways is an attack on the environment and science. It presages an even greater ecological disaster--the federal transportation bill which, if not dramatically amended, will deliver 80 percent of several hundred billion more dollars to the highway industry.

The House stimulus package allocated only $12 billion for public transportation. This was raised from $9 billion but still is dwarfed by the highway budget-and is in danger of being raided by the Senate for even more highway funding. Meanwhile the existing mass transit infrastructure is deteriorating, as St. Louis, for example, is facing a 43% cut in transit services. The best and most cost-effective solution for transit capital is to fund brand new, clean fuel, expansion buses to run on already built surface streets and highways along with new rail cars to run on already existing tracks. The key is to eliminate new highway construction altogether and restrict highway funding to repairing existing structures.
Yet the stimulus package allocates no money for transit "operations funds." "Operations" means "jobs" for drivers, mechanics, maintenance, and clerical workers. Without federal operating funds local transit agencies raise fares, cut service, and try to push through more regressive sales taxes, driving people out of mass transit. Congressperson DeFazio of Oregon made an amendment for $2 billion in operations funds but was voted down in the House.

Here are structural changes the President and Congress need to make.

  • Allocate $20 billion for bus and subway operations and take it right out of the $27 billion for highways.
  • Allocate $20 billion for transit capital beginning with expanding urban bus systems with the purchase of 20,000 buses. 20,000 new buses would generate 140,000 assembly and parts jobs and another 100,000 jobs for bus drivers, mechanics, maintenance people for 12 years-240,000 green collar jobs. Another priority is to fund new subway cars on already existing track-the New York subway, MARTA in Atlanta, the Chicago El, which can double service and generate new jobs without the short term jobs and long-term profits construction companies demand.
  • Use part of the $20 billion operating budget to cut transit fares in half. LA's $5 a day pass would be $2.50, New York's $7 a day cut to $3.50. Fare reductions would dramatically increase transit use creating more jobs and getting people to the jobs they barely have. It would generate $120 a month in disposable income for a family of four transit users for housing, clothes, and food-pump priming the economy and their own lives.
  • Establish a civil rights provision that no federal transit funds can be allocated in a racially discriminatory manner and allowing civil rights groups to bring actions to challenge federal transit policy under a strengthened Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In LA and other U.S. cities a county-wide, low-fare, clean fuel bus system with bus only lanes and freeway bus lanes combined with auto free zones and rush hours would dramatically cut greenhouse gases and support a collective public, rather than single private, transportation system.

The Obama presidency is a great victory for the civil rights and progressive movement. Many of us gave money, phone banked, and organized door to door to deliver his message of change. His decisions to close down Guantanamo and eliminate torture as policy are already great achievements. His next step should be to stand up to the highway lobby and acknowledge the disastrous impacts of expanded highway and auto use on global warming. The priority must be to fund workers who assemble and operate buses and rail cars, and to make a massive investment in operating funds to lower fares and increase service for the transit dependent--those who desperately need public transportation to get to jobs, medical care, and education. Those are changes we must have and can believe in.

~ Published on Left Views Feb. 26, 2009