Across America, subways, buses, light rail, commuter trains, trolleys, and other forms of public transit provided nearly 10 billion rides in 2018. In New York City, where I live, people were making roughly 8 million trips by subway or bus every weekday before the outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020 massively disrupted commuting behaviors. By mid-April, just one month into the pandemic, ridership in the city had plummeted by 90 percent. Of those 10 percent who were still riding subways and buses during the height of NYC’s outbreak, the vast majority were essential workers: the medical personnel, supermarket and pharmacy employees, food-service workers, and others who put themselves and their families at grave risk to help their fellow New Yorkers meet their most basic needs during the city’s stay-at-home order. That list very much includes the city’s 74,000 transit workers themselves, more than 130 of whom have so far died from the disease.
At a time when few people felt comfortable riding on public transit, these individuals didn’t let fear keep them from getting to their jobs—jobs that couldn’t be performed from home on the computer. And though New York City may offer the most vivid illustration of how public transportation has kept its essential businesses and services running smoothly during the pandemic, similar stories have played out in other cities across the country: Chicago, San Francisco, San Antonio, Texas, Washington, D.C., and Charlotte, North Carolina, to name only a few.
With or without a pandemic, public transit is itself an essential service. For millions of people, especially those living in cities, it’s the primary means for getting around. And within that subgroup, it’s often the main or only source of transportation for the poor and working class or for people of color.
Despite its importance to the economy and vitality of U.S. cities, public transit in this country was struggling even before the novel coronavirus hit. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 40 percent of America’s buses and 23 percent of its rail systems are deemed to be in marginal or poor condition; the estimated $98 billion that’s needed for repairs and maintenance has been backlogged for years. And once COVID-19 began coursing through America’s major metropolitan areas, one revenue stream that had always remained relatively stable—fares, which account for anywhere between a quarter to nearly 40 percent of the revenue for big-city systems—began plummeting. San Francisco’s BART system lost nearly $800,000 a day in the month of March. In May, New York’s MTA took in just over $61 million in fares—nearly $548 million less than what had been projected for the month, pre-pandemic.
Transit authorities looked hopefully to Congress during the first round of COVID-related recovery funding, and Congress responded by dedicating $26 billion of the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to mass transit. That was a historic and necessary win for transit—especially since these funds give agencies the flexibility to fund operations, and not just capital projects and maintenance—but it’s still nowhere near enough.
What public transit needs from the federal government isn’t a response but a commitment. Just yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the Moving Forward Act, a $1.5 trillion bill aimed at building out and improving America’s infrastructure, including its public transit infrastructure. If passed and signed into law, it could inject more than $165 billion into the bus, subway, light rail, and train networks that so many rely on—and that has kept America’s cities functioning over the past several months.
As the advocacy organization Transportation For America has observed, federal funding for transportation infrastructure has greatly favored highway investment over transit investment for nearly four decades now. Since 1982, this funding has basically broken down into an 80 percent–20 percent split, with highways getting four-fifths of monies and public transit settling for the remainder. The discrepancy was explained by the fact that four of every five cents of a new gas tax imposed that same year would go toward the building and maintaining of highways, with the remaining penny going toward urban mass transit. But in 2008, the trust fund from which these monies flowed went bust, and the gas tax was no longer sufficient to cover our nation’s transportation costs. Yet the 80-20 model has remained—even though these costs are now paid each year with general taxpayer dollars rather than a user fee paid by drivers at the pump.
For Americans whose chief mode of transport is driving—about 83 percent—it’s been too easy to ignore this unjust and lopsided funding pattern over the last dozen years. (Drivers’ disregard for the benefits of mass transit is so prevalent that it has become the stuff of Onion satire.) But we as a nation can no longer afford to treat mass transit as something that’s one-fifth as important as the highway system.
If the Senate passes—and the president signs—the Moving Forward Act, they should give as much money to bus and subway systems as the act currently states, or even more. The Coalition for Clean Energy and Healthy Communities has called for $150 billion in long-term transit funding and a 50-50 split for all new transportation funds between the highway and public transit accounts in the Highway Trust Fund. As a matter of equity, we must work harder to expand and improve access to reliable and affordable mass transit for those communities that rely on it to meet their transportation needs. As a matter of environmental responsibility, we must work harder to create safer, faster, and climate-friendlier alternatives to driving and reduce the emissions that come with it.
And now, it’s also a matter of public safety. Mass transit is an essential service that transports essential workers. Without it—and without them—we’d be helpless.
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