This week Congress surprised the country by actually passing a bipartisan, two-year transportation bill in both houses that President Obama has indicated he will sign. It doubles as a jobs bill by providing for much-needed infrastructure repair which of course requires employing construction workers. The Republicans were not able to insert the Keystone Pipeline into the legislation as they were working hard to do. This is good news given that the original transportation bill the House Republicans offered was labeled by the Natural Resources Defense Council as “the worst transportation bill ever.” However, while most initial reports on the bill that was passed were jubilant, there were a few sources that immediately noted the disastrous consequences for public transportation built into the bill. What makes it a bad bill is that it limits how public transit systems can use federal money for operations. Specifically, the President of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Larry Hanley, said,
“This transportation bill is a death blow to public transportation; it not only does nothing to address the American mass transit crisis, but will make it much worse.”
Many factors are driving Americans’ move toward public transit: high gas prices, congested traffic, the costs of maintaining a vehicle, and even concern about the environment. Regardless of the reasons, Americans use of mass transit is up 5% just since last year, or about 125.7 million more trips this year compared to last. However, just as more people are making use of this invaluable public resource, Republicans are going out of their way to slash funding for public transportation, both in terms of new projects and maintenance of existing systems. As a result, nearly 80% of transit systems have had to either reduce services or raise fares since 2010. According to the President of the American Public Transportation Association, William Millar,
“Public transportation systems are currently experiencing decreases in their funding during a time when many are serving increased number of riders. Systems are forced to continue to freeze positions and lay off workers, which makes providing necessary transit service even more difficult.”
Like all things public, Republicans want to attack and dismantle public transportation just as badly as they do all the other services provided by government. Showing off their truly loony side, they have gone so far as to accuse public transportation of being a socialist conspiracy perpetrated by the United Nations as part of a “New World Order.” When they are not using bizarre conspiracy theories to fuel the right-wing populism behind tearing down public transportation, Republicans play on two American traditions to sour the American public on mass transit: disdain for the poor and the cultural meme of independence on the open road.
Conventionally, people associate the need for public transit with urban, poor populations, and Republicans use this stereotypical association in their favor. Like attacks on welfare, they are able to parlay negative attitudes toward helping the “undeserving poor”, tainted with their ever-present racism, into an “us-versus-them” mentality regarding mass transit. Republicans perpetuate the myth that roads pay for themselves while public transit costs the taxpayer money, despite the fact that this has been shown to be untrue. For example, the State Smart Transportation Initiative in Wisconsin calculated that non-users of roads each pay about $779 for them, while non-users of public transit pay $50. Republicans love to divide and conquer, and emphasizing that transportation dollars that go to public transit benefit “only certain populations in big cities” is an effective way to wedge large swaths of Americans from one another. Not coincidentally, Republicans have been attacking or neglecting big cities in general. For example, during the Republican primary, Rick Santorum said,
“Think about it, look at the map of the United States — blue being the Democrats, red being the Republicans — it’s almost all red. Except around the big cities.”
In addition to pouncing on the perceived relationship between public transportation and poor or urban people, Republicans also like to play up the all-American love affair with the automobile and the open road. They use language that emphasizes the prominence of independence, freedom, and exploration, juxtaposing these iconic American ideals with the allegedly “socialist, confining, and restrictive” public transportation system. As a result, their only solution to the need for transportation is “get a car.”
As a microcosm of the national problem, investigative reporter Daniel Denvir recently covered the dilemma over mass transit in Pennsylvania. Home to the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA), the sixth largest transit system in the United States, Philadelphia’s system provides nearly 334 million rides each year between its busses, subways, and commuter rails. Nonetheless, the system is being bombarded by cuts from not only the new transportation bill, but also from state and local government, despite the fact that there are scores of infrastructure maintenance needs that are starting to affect safety and efficiency. Pittsburgh is in dire straits as well. They are planning on cutting nearly half of their current bus lines in the next year. The situation is so dramatic that it scared a potential employer into cancelling plans for expansion. DialAmerica was planning on adding 150 new jobs to its Pittsburgh location, but the elimination of bus lines caused the company to reconsider, fearing that employees will be unable to get to work.
Governor Tom Corbett appointed a committee to study the transportation issues of the state. They have provided an extensive report that concludes there is a need to raise transportation-related taxes and fees. Rather than act on the recommendations though, the governor appears to be ignoring the commission.
Naturally, in an era of retrenchment for public transportation, progressive moves to actually enhance the system through things like high speed rail, let alone maintain the existing system, are getting axed by Republicans as well. Whether its Governor Scott Walker’s rejection of a new high speed rail in Wisconsin or Governor Rick Scott’s lawsuit to kill high speed rail in Florida, Republicans have done their best to keep the country in the technological dark ages when it comes to rail travel, leaving the country decades behind the advancements on other continents.
The war on public transportation is in full swing, like the war on all things public waged by the right wing. Like so many of their offensives, the underlying motivations include racism and hatred toward the poor. There is also the opportunity to take a swipe at environmentalists, which Republicans never miss. In this climate, now more than ever, public transportation needs vocal champions.
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.