Transit unions text Washington to get better commute

Capitol Hill aides leaving Union Station on their way to work Wednesday will find a Jumbotron screen outside the train station asking them to help the country’s commuters. 

The screen, broadcasting text messages from worried subway riders and bus passengers, is part of a campaign by national transit unions to garner support for legislation that will give greater control over federal funds to local transit authorities. 

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The Amalgamated Transit Union and the Transport Workers Union of America are lobbying for legislation introduced by Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.) that they say will help avert a looming transit crisis. 

“Over the last year and a half, the situation with public transit just keeps getting worse. There have been service cuts, massive layoffs and fare increases,” said Jeffrey Rosenberg, legislative director for the Amalgamated Transit Union. “The purpose of this campaign is very simple: to change the federal rules on how transit money is spent in order to save jobs of not only transit workers but also of people who are struggling to get to their jobs.” 

According to the unions, seven out of 10 transit systems are facing budget deficits, which could lead to service cuts and layoffs. That could cost the unions some of their members.

The two unions, along with the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s civil rights group, are part of the Save Our Ride Campaign, which represents more than 300,000 transit workers. The campaign has hosted rallies over the past year in Atlanta; Birmingham, Ala.; Detroit; Cleveland; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; Houston; and Miami to make sure transit agencies don’t fall victim to budget shortfalls. 

Carnahan’s bill could help fix that. The legislation would allow local transit authorities to spend federal funds not just on new capital investments like buses or subway cars but also on operating costs for subway systems and bus routes. 

“Instead of buying the buses, you can spend the money on paying people to drive the buses or fix the buses,” Sara Howard, a spokeswoman for Carnahan, told The Hill.

Current law provides little flexibility for local transit agencies on how to use federal transit funds for operational costs; only very rural transit authorities are allowed to do so. Carnahan’s bill would allow big-city transit agencies to also spend federal funds on hiring back workers, just as their rural counterparts can do right now. 

Lifting those restrictions from transportation grants can help save jobs and restore transit services, according to Carnahan’s office. 

In early 2009, St. Louis Metro cut more than 500 jobs and eliminated 36 percent of its service. After greater flexibility was afforded through stimulus transportation funds, the transit authority was able to hire back about 250 employees and restore about 55 percent of the services that had been cut.

“It was a really dramatic situation here,” Howard said. “It was a real-life illustration of what this legislation is designed to prevent. We had buses sitting in the parking lot but no one to drive them.”

Another big selling point on Capitol Hill for the legislation is it does not call for new spending. Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have been averse to deficit spending given voter anger over the growing national debt. 

Carnahan’s legislation has a solid base of support in the House, with 143 co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle. In addition, it has been attached to House Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar’s (D-Minn.) surface transportation bill. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) has introduced complementary legislation in the Senate.

“It has a good showing on both sides of the aisle, and that is pretty rare now these days,” Rosenberg said. “Transportation is not a partisan issue. I think lawmakers on both sides realize that is not right, to let federal funds be used to buy a bus but not let that money be used to then put that bus into service.”

The chief problem for advocates is time. The House and Senate may both adjourn as early as next week.