Opinion | Energy & Environment

Transformation requires investment in public transit

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Around the country, cities are beginning to reopen, and people are getting back on the move. While the recent increase in COVID-19 case counts means that we must remain vigilant and protect our community, we are seeing an uptick in travel and traffic here in Austin and throughout the United States. A gradual and safe return to pre-pandemic life also means that we must "build back better" as President Biden says. That means addressing the fragilities that the coronavirus laid bare and supporting the very systems and people that held our communities together.

Transit workers have always been key workers, but during the pandemic, they were widely seen as some of the most vital employees and, even though ridership dropped 60 percent, Austin's Capital Metro still provided 40,000 trips per day. 

As our country rebounds, we must prioritize the recovery and repair of our public transit systems and transform them to operate in a low-emissions future. Transportation emissions are the largest and fastest growing source of carbon pollution in the United States. Investing in clean and efficient public transit systems is a critical pathway to lowering transport and overall emissions and is absolutely essential for maintaining the well-being of cities. In Austin, we have invested in transitioning our fleet to electric buses, which has already reduced bus pollution by 52 percent, or 154 fewer metric tons per year between 2016 and 2019.  

Research shows that investing in cleaner transit, securing good jobs for our workers and keeping our cities moving are not mutually exclusive actions. Each is necessary to fully support the other. Austin's residents have recognized the importance of a robust transit system and approved a $7.1 billion dollar investment in Project Connect during the pandemic. In addition to offering a more accessible transit system, this investment will also expand our labor force with well-paying jobs through its construction, the additional economic development it generates, and for transit workers who operate and maintain transit.

Cities across the country are ready and wanting to make transformational investments in their public transportation systems to unlock the public health and associated benefits just like Austin, but they cannot do it alone. Congress is in a position to help Austin and other American cities build back better with workers in mind.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill, led by the Biden administration and recently approved by the Senate is a good start, and more investments are expected to come with passage of the 2022 budget reconciliation. The $39 billion allocated in the infrastructure bill is the highest level of transit funding in the history of the program. Importantly, the legislation includes provisions to upgrade our infrastructure, fight climate change and ensure workers' safety.

For example, it provides $5 billion in funding for the purchase of electric buses that will help rid our communities of air pollution in addition to addressing the epidemic of violent assaults on transit workers and riders that has plagued our country's transit systems, including right here in Austin. These investments are necessary. However, more is needed for true transformation, including, for example, to train our nation's transit workers to operate, repair and maintain cleaner vehicles. This is why Congress should do the right thing and pass a robust package of legislation to ensure our public transit systems can continue to provide safe and reliable service. 

America's mayors and unions are ready to do their part to build a future that is cleaner, healthier and provides greater opportunities for everyone. We must prioritize investments in infrastructure and a workforce fit for the 21st century. The budget reconciliation bill should add on even more to help America get back on the move toward a brighter, fairer and cleaner tomorrow. 

Steve Adler is the mayor of Austin, Texas. 

John Costa is the international president of Amalgamated Transit Union.

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