Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty spent less than 24 hours reviewing a transit plan that would create jobs, increase safety, fund better local public transit, and reduce gridlock on the state’s roads before he vetoed it. The transit package was backed by a wide coalition of unions, the Chamber of Commerce, and environmental advocacy groups. In calling for the legislature to overturn the veto, the state’s AFL-CIO President Ray Waldron said that the sorry condition of roads, bridges, and transit services in the state “has a negative impact on every worker and business in the state. Investments in our transportation infrastructure would help our state’s businesses–and create 33,000 jobs a year for the next five years.”
General investments in our infrastructure are poor across the board, but there has also been a strong, overt bias against public transit projects specifically at the federal level with the Bush administration proposing slashing mass transit funding in its last budget, including a 40 percent cut in funding to Amtrak. In 2004, spending by Federal, state and local governments on highways and bridges was overwhelmingly in favor of highways and bridges the money spent on transit projects. Highway and bridge spending averaged over $70 billion while nonvehicular transit received just $9.2 billion.
We will highlight ways that states can work around the Federal bias and obstacles to implement successful public transportation options. As detailed below, public transit is not only essential for fighting climate change, but brings economic benefits to states and good, well-paying jobs.
The Need for Public Transit
The truth of the matter is that people do not share the federal government’s hatred of public transport. Over half of Americans polled said they would take mass transit if it were more easily accessible from their homes or where they work. Two in three (65%) said the rising price of gasoline makes them more likely to consider using mass transit and 44% would be willing to pay higher taxes if they knew all the added taxes were being spent on improving or creating public transportation where they live.
Compounding public opinion and support of transit projects is the stark reality that serious inroads against climate change cannot be made without supporting and encouraging masss transit. A recent report by Environment Maine shows that transportation (cars, SUVs, and other vehicles) is the leading contributor to global warming. However, the report also shows that the New England states that have made significant investments in transit are curbing emissions of global warming pollutants and use less gasoline. Indeed, the availability of transit allows for fewer vehicle miles traveled and, as a result, states like New Jersey, Connecticut and New York are among the greenest states in the country. The Environment Maine report concludes that improving and expanding transit service is vital to addressing global warming and energy concerns.
Even some key conservative leaders like Paul Weyrich highlight that the lack of mass transit is not the result of “market forces” in the US, but is a historical legacy of disproportionate federal intervention in support of sprawl. Weyrich condemns “libertarian” advocates of building more roads as not representing either conservative principles or reflecting voter desires:
The libertarians have made the case that money for public transit is a waste. They want more roads. That is a form of subsidized transportation as well. But they don’t see it that way because individuals can drive. However, in city after city which has adopted light rail an overflow crowd has elected to use it as opposed to driving.
This reality is that, despite weak federal support for mass transit and high levels of subsidies for road building, the public has supported local public transit initiatives in states and communities across the country.
Successful State Transit Projects
Even with the federal bias against transit, states have worked hard to implement transit projects, finding local money and cost savings to make the transit systems work:
• Denver, Colorado has one of the most success recent rail projects. The city has a 14-mile Light Rail Transit system that was funded in part through an existing use tax and in part by savings realized by the bus trips that were replaced by the Light Rail service. No increase in taxes or federal dollars were needed. Over 22,000 riders take the Light Rail on an average weekday. The project increased transit-oriented development and is looking to continue to expand Light Rail corridors.
• After several years of delays and half-measures, leaders in North Carolina are moving forward on Charlotte’s public transit system, CATS. CATS overhauled the previous transit plan through hundreds of community meetings and changing the proposed system in response to comunity feedback to make it more user friendly. For instance, instead of bus lines that run only to and from the urban center, the system now includes a number of neighborhood connector routes. This makes for dramatically faster service for seniors and lower income patrons who used to have to spend two or three hours to get to the store or doctor. CATS also includes the LYNX commuter rail system that now runs along Charlotte’s south corridor and has been an overwhelming success with ridership levels well above projected levels. Charlotte’s transit project is funded through a 0.5% sales tax that has generated $70 million in 2007 alone. Remarkably, the community voted to preserve the tax by a margin of 70% to 30%.
• Transit projects do not have to be limited only to rail projects. Northern Virginia is looking to implement a mass transit expansion that could include Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). BRT features extra-long carriers running in dedicated bus lanes. While buses emit more carbon than trains, the emissions can be minimized by employing cleaner technology buses. BRT systems can carry more than 10,000 passengers per hour in peak time and can save as much as 654,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions over 20 years. The implementation costs can also be lower than light rail, as BRT requires expansions of current roads instead of creating a new rail system.
• In Arizona, lawmakers are moving ahead on considering mass transit options. Among the ideas is a commuter train between Tucson and Phoenix. Phoenix is one of the cities using Bus Rapid Transit with a continually increasing ridership percentage. The high ridership indicates a friendly environment for increasing mass transit options.
• Illinois struggled with threats of service cuts to Chicago area mass transit before finally coming to an agreement between the governor and legislature. The agreement (HB 656) provides long-term funding and support for mass transit and will allow senior citizens to use main line and fixed route public transit service for free. The long-term funding also guarantees that the Chicago area transit will not have cut services, raise fares or lay-off workers.
The Transportation Equity Network (TEN) is one of the leaders championing mass transit projects and their benefits. TEN is a national coalition dedicated to reforming transportation and land use policies. TEN coalition members are part of the growing influence of faith-based organizations, such as the Gamaliel Foundation, that look to implement progressive policies. TEN specifically looks to improve transportation law to benefit low-income communities and was instrumentally in passing reforms for stronger public involvement requirements in the transportation planning process and creating the Job Access and Reverse Commute Program (JRAC), a $750 million program to provide mobility options to low-income workers to get them to jobs and services.
On the state and local level, TEN coalition members have succeeded through:
• Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN) of Pittsburgh, PA working towards public transit, got Governor Rendell to commit at their 800 person public meeting to take leadership in the campaign in the state legislature to dedicate $649 million for PA mass transit systems. They ultimately won about half that amount.
• ISAIAH of Minneapolis, MN, working with a coalition, won $20 million for public transit and is planning to pursue another $40 million during the upcoming state legislative session.
• Faith Action for Community Equity (FACE) of Honolulu, HI is working on a campaign on a $4 billion light rail system.
• Gamaliel of Michigan got the city of Detroit to set up a land bank which will return vacant, deserted land in the city to useful life.
Transportation Equity Network and Workforce Development
TEN also promotes equitable access to workforce development, regardless of gender or racial classification. The recently released Road to Jobs study highlights the disparity in job opportunities between white males and African-Americans, Latinos and women. According to the report, in every area studied, white males dominated the construction work, regardless of the racial and gender makeup of the local workforce as a whole. The study found that more than 42.000 African-American workers were missing from the construction workforce and while women make up half of the population, they hold 6 percent or less of the construction industry jobs. This is despite the fact that there are significant labor shortages in the construction industry that will get worse in upcoming years.
To address this issue, TEN coalitions members have pressed for reform on the federal, state and local level through the Metro Equity Campaign to stop urban sprawl, prevent environmental degradation, and increase social justice equity. Some of their victories include:
• MORE2 in Kansas City, Missouri was instrumental in the passage of a new Kansas City ordinance that requires company-wide hiring goals for minority and female construction workers on city contracts and will increase minority participation in union apprenticeship programs by 30% in the next five years.
• AMOS in Cincinnati, Ohio got two African-Americans appointed to the Banks Working Group, which then adopted AMOS’ platform, under which 22% of the work hours on the $800 million dollar project will be done by people of color and women and 30% will done by minority contractors.
• MCU in St. Louis, has helped to structure the groundbreaking Missouri Dept. of Transportation grant program that will move more than 150 people of color, low-income and women workers into construction and professional services positions on a the I-64 project.
• ISAIAH in Minnesota, worked to introduce a bill (SF 1296) in the state legislature that requires the Minnesota Dept of Transportation to spend the maximum feasible amount on jobs and to report to the legislature bi-annually on the effectiveness of the program at diversifying the workforce. The bill passed the Senate, but failed in the House.
• MI-VOICE in Michigan successfully wrote a JOBS NOW agreement to provide $15 million over 4 years for job training through the Road Construction Apprenticeship Readiness Program. The JOBS NOW campaign aims to get thousands of high paying jobs for low-income people, minorities, women and ex-offenders through alliances with minority contractors and unions to secure workforce development agreements and policies in at least eight states.
In California, the Alameda Corridor Jobs Coalition (ACJC) successfully campaigned for the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority to adopt a plan submitted by ACJC to require that 30 percent of all work hours on a local transit project, which also happened to be the largest public infrastructure project underway in the country at the time, be performed by residents on the low-income communities along the corridor. In the end, the job training and development program exceeded the established goals and trained 1,281 corridor residents with 710 graduates of the program being placed in jobs within the construction industry.
States have really taken the lead on targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, ignoring the impact that driving and cars have on greenhouse gas emissions will will prevent the targets from being met. Promoting mass transit development and ridership go hand in hand with energy efficiency and renewable energy development in the fight against global warming. Not to mention, as the TEN successes highlight, there is a great potential for workforce development through transit projects. Jobs, cleaner environments, easier work commutes, the benefits to mass transit are many and states can’t afford not to take part.
J. Mijin Cha is a Policy Specialist with the Progressive States Network focusing on assisting legislators and organizations in promoting Smart Growth and Clean Jobs. She recently completed her PhD in law from the Univ. of London, School of Oriental and African Studies studying access to justice and environmental justice movements in India and the U.S. Prior to joining Progressive States, she worked in Nepal on a project increasing access to environmental justice in rural areas of South Asia. She has worked with grassroots groups in several countries and is a member of the California Bar.