Public transit is an essential part of people’s lives. In big cities, small towns and rural villages across the country.
And thanks to bipartisan support in Congress, public transportation has been able to continue running throughout the pandemic, despite a significant drop in ridership. Continuing this vital service has been crucial in connecting our essential workers to get to their jobs. It has also been crucial for those of us not on transit because we rely on the grocers, health care workers, teachers, and other frontline workers, many of whom couldn’t do their job without transit to get them there.
But now, as we move out of the pandemic, we need robust transit to help people get back to work. We also need to call for and restructure the federal transportation program to finally build the 21st century transportation system we need. To rebuild the economy, ensure economic opportunity, and work towards climate and racial equity, we need major investment in America’s public transit — the kind of commitment we made to highways starting in the 1950s.
To do this, there are two things Congress should consider in the next surface transportation reauthorization bill, as I told the Senate Banking Committee last month: funding transit operations and making a highway-level funding commitment to transit.
To be clear, the transportation system was not efficient, safe, affordable or equitable before the pandemic. Data from last year showed a massive increase in roadway fatalities for people in and out of cars. While traffic levels dropped due to the pandemic, fatalities increased 8 percent, causing the greatest increase in the fatality rate in 96 years. That danger has always been a barrier for transit users, but last year it was more dangerous than ever. And it is a danger that applies equally to people in urban and rural places.
Our transportation system was also inequitable before the pandemic. The lack of reliable transit in the U.S. means low-income Americans spend close to 30 percent of their household income on transportation to get where they need to go, compared to 13 percent on average for all Americans. In my neighborhood, Columbia Heights in the heart of Washington, D.C., the average household spends 8 percent on transportation due to the close proximity of destinations like groceries, clinics, schools, restaurants, and retail, and the access to multiple bus lines and rail.
Long before COVID, our transportation system also contributed to climate change. And while electrification is essential, it is insufficient to address climate change. In our report, we cite several states that have found they need to electrify vehicles and allow people to use cars less to reach their climate goals. California, for example, has found that even if the state meets its ambitious target of 15 percent zero emissions vehicles on the road by 2030, people would still need to drive 4.5 fewer miles per day to reach the state’s 2030 climate target. This is where transit and making roads safer so that people can get to transit becomes so essential.
Congress has the tools to solve these problems, by investing in a 21st century public transit system that works for people and the economy.
Congress must fund transit operations in addition to capital projects. As revenue from fares and local tax measures evaporated virtually overnight, the pandemic demonstrated the need for a stable source of funding for transit service in emergencies. Congress came through. Long-term federal support for transit operations — particularly for greater frequencies, expanded hours and new service — will help agencies deliver the high quality, safe, and affordable public transit service urban and rural Americans need and deserve.
Congress must make a highway-level funding commitment to transit. For nearly 40 years, we have stuck to a deal that was made during the Reagan administration to bring transit into the surface transportation program. At the time, the gas tax paid for the whole program, something that has not been true in over a decade. To build a robust transit system like we have a robust highway system for Americans in large cities, small cities and rural towns alike, it will require a similar funding commitment.
COVID has caused many to lose work, and people are struggling to pay rent, mortgages and car payments. As the economic recovery begins, the number of transit dependent people who we want to help to get back to work will likely only rise. High quality transit will be an important part of ensuring that everyone gets back to work.
It is time for Congress to make our transportation system more efficient, affordable, equitable and accessible for everyone, by investing in public transit in the next surface transportation reauthorization bill.
Beth Osborne is director of Transportation for America.