| Transit Users Fall Under Wheels of Bailout/Budget Hit-and-Run
By Fran Taylor, Member of Walk SF Mar 20, 2009
Transit ridership is rising, global warming is speeding up, and sprawl development has led to foreclosure and heartbreak. Encouraging the first development could address the other two. The various budgets and bailouts we’ve been clobbered with this year, however, suggest we should instead slash funding for buses and trains.
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Start with California’s governor and legislature, pause at local government, then move on to the Feds, and the message is clear: The same policies that got us in this mess will be rewarded, while transportation ideas that could solve multiple problems at once must beg for scraps.
The state budget cuts funding for transit by $536 million while nixing a proposed rise in the gasoline tax. Muni, AC Transit, BART, SamTrans, and Caltrain will all lose millions at the same time that local tax revenues to support them are also dropping. Words like “catastrophic” and “Armageddon” greeted the budget, as regional transit agencies predicted service cuts and fare hikes.
Muni’s Transit Effectiveness Project may go ahead with route changes this summer without making the improvements in reliability that had been promised first. Reliability would take new drivers and inspectors and stepped-up traffic enforcement, and the Municipal Transportation Agency, out over $60 million over the next two years, is scrambling just to keep what it has.
Finally, the Federal stimulus package reflects two biases: highways over transit and infrastructure over operating costs. Legislators are more likely to drive than take the bus and don’t feel the pinch when transit starves. So highway work got almost three times the allocation of public transportation. But even within the transit slice of the pie, construction projects took the lion’s share, while day to day costs of drivers’ salaries, fuel, and maintenance got short-changed. The original House bill had a nice even figure for transit operating funds: zero. In the Senate, meanwhile, an amendment to give tax breaks for up to $49,500 of a new car’s price tag passed 71-26! (Thankfully, this was stripped out of the final version.)
The results nationwide, according to the American Public Transportation Association, will be dire: “major transit systems teeter on the edge of insolvency, green collar jobs are cut, and energy-conserving transit riders are forced into cars.” As The New York Times points out, “The nation’s transit woes threaten to deal another blow to the weak economy, keeping some workers from jobs they commute to.”
Federal money did make up for some of the state cuts. In a hotly contested vote, however, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission chose to allocate $70 million of it to build an Airport Connector between Coliseum BART and the Oakland airport instead of making that money available for operating costs, specifically for AC Transit.
Over 100 transit riders and advocates packed a February hearing to oppose funding a convenience for people who can afford a plane ticket over a necessity for people who can barely afford a bus ticket. A broad coalition of community groups, transit union workers, seniors, and youth managed to improve the allocation split but couldn’t shake the MTC’s determination to build what the protestors called a “wasteful project.”
Transit users may have taken it on the chin in the last several months, but the editorial pages of major newspapers throughout the country are pointing out how short-sighted such decisions are. This is a huge change from years of invisibility. As automobile advertising money dries up, media outlets are suddenly discovering buses.
In a related twist, the automobile manufacturers became a popular punching bag when CEOs flew in private jets to Washington to plead for money. Bailout dollars did flow, however. At issue is more than a few arrogant executives; workers affected by the industry make up close to 10% of the total U.S. workforce.
The crash of the auto industry could be simultaneously liberating and devastating. Union workers are losing pay and benefits, and dealers are shutting up shop. The workers have become a convenient scapegoat. Labor Notes, a Detroit-based monthly paper, says:
“The only place where pundits, politicians, and Big 3 executives agree is that autoworkers must be punished for defending what’s left of hard-won living standards. For union members, it’s infuriating to watch news anchors hold forth about high-paid blue-collar workers. Websites fill up with comments from people who think the folks who get their hands dirty don’t deserve to send their kids to college.”
Labor Notes explains, “Even if autoworkers worked for free, it would only shave 5% off the cost of the cars they make.” And it offers a perspective sadly lacking in government discussions in a call for the industry to confront global warming:
“Federal policy hasn’t changed since the 1950s, when gas was a nickel a gallon. Detroit retooled in a matter of weeks in 1941 when the government said, ‘Tanks, no cars.’ That same sense of urgency is needed today for the infrastructure and equipment to build mass transit and high-speed trains.”
This small, scrappy paper understands better than Congress how, in one dramatic move, many of the bailout/budget/environment problems could be solved. As car dealerships fold, those acres of paved lots become available for more vibrant uses: small retail, housing, parks, schools. Surely, the number of jobs that can be created will exceed a handful of salespeople surrounded by a sea of cars, just as autoworkers’ jobs could be transformed into production for mass transit. Then we wouldn’t have to fight for pieces of the pie. We could all sit down and eat it together.
Fran Taylor can be reached at email@example.com or 874-4570.
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