Schumer’s moment to transform transit and deepen democracy
The pandemic nearly destroyed public transit. It faces a long recovery. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a subway rider, led the charge to save it. Now, Schumer has a chance to keep trains and buses running and meanwhile transform transit and the nation.
Through support to maintain and expand operations — ensuring transit works for everyone — Congress can right past wrongs to communities harmed by highway building and austerity, and put transit on a path to resilience and growth.
Transit is essential to recovery and central to environmental and climate justice, clearing our air and cooling frontline neighborhoods that bear the brunt of fossil fuel burning.
But fair funding for transit means more than faster trips, reliable commutes, and accessible infrastructure. It means more than addressing the extreme heat and flooding bearing down on us this summer with inequitable impacts.
In many areas, transit is an engine of opportunity, but gets treated like a social service on a shoestring budget. Rolling out better transit this year and next can restore faith in our public institutions and deepen American democracy at a critical moment.
Just like transit itself, our social fabric and governing institutions face daunting maintenance backlogs. Investing in transit can help rebuild our common foundation. Few public services can scale up as quickly and meet the urgency of this moment.
If Congress authorizes more transit funding this fall, bus and train service across the country can multiply by the new year. In a few short months, transit workers can get up to speed on expanded routes and give millions more Americans access to work, school, and basic needs.
The transformative role of better transit in America is staggering. According to White House statistics, New Yorkers who take transit spend 58.9 percent more time commuting than drivers. Non-white households are 2.5 times more likely to ride transit than whites.
The figures are far worse elsewhere. West Virginian transit riders spend 76.7 percent more time commuting and non-white households are 4.9 times more likely to ride transit than whites. From Pennsylvania to Georgia and from Ohio to Arizona, the numbers are striking. Better service is a core question of racial justice; 60 percent of U.S. transit riders are people of color.
Congress can do hard things. After decades of federal highway spending outpacing public transit by 4-to-1, Congress delivered $70 billion to aid transit systems. With a gradual return of riders (and revenue), there’s a lot left to do.
Riders across the nation are demanding sustained support to run more buses and trains. Even if Congress builds it, for example with capital funding for physical infrastructure, riders won’t get on board unless transit is frequent and affordable.
In New York, for example, transforming transit means both $20 billion for the MTA’s historic capital program of accessibility and reliability upgrades and $3 billion in annual federal support to preserve and improve service as ridership slowly builds back. This funding is essential to avoid new debt and to prevent steep fare hikes, service cuts, and job losses.
Rep. Hank Johnson’s (D-Ga.) Stronger Communities Through Better Transit Act (H.R.3744) would deliver the operating support New York needs to avoid decimating transit and instead equitably expand routes and service.
For his part, along with Senate Banking Committee Chair Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) recently introduced a plan to electrify the American bus fleet, building on a Biden administration proposal.
Zero-emission buses are essential to fighting climate change. But unless people trade cars for buses, we won’t make a dent in our carbon emissions. Electrification alone is not enough; frequent service with federal support can do the job.
The trials of the past year and a half shined a light on public transit and its role in our economy and society. Congress decided it was worth rescuing. Now it’s time to build on that heroic effort. Transforming transit can help rescue us from the crises we face.
Better transit can restore faith in institutions and deepen democracy in the course of a single election cycle. Transit also has a key role to play in achieving racial and climate justice, the struggles we must win to continue to inspire and prosper as a nation.
As he tackles the biggest problems in the nation, Schumer should turn again to transit, its potential to be transformed, and its power to transform American communities.
Plum is the Executive Director of the Riders Alliance.