Americans have since the second world war built an entire way of life around the automobile. It turns out, however, that our faith was an unsteady one and, in the face of high gas prices and young people's increasing preference for urban living, we are heading back to subways, trains, buses and trolleys in droves. In the first quarter of this year, we took an additional 125.7m trips on mass transit compared with the same time period last year – an increase of 5%.
Yet, Republican-led austerity is pushing public transit, like most everything public, into severe fiscal and physical crisis. All at the very moment when we want and need it the most. Nationwide, 80% of mass transit systems either did move to boost fares and cut services or considered doing so in 2010, according to the most recent report from the American Public Transportation Association.
Fare hikes and service cuts may be coming to Philadelphia, home to the nation's sixth largest transit system – and the subject of a report I wrote for Thursday's City Paper. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) projects a $36m deficit beginning in July 2013 and already lacks the funds necessary to fix crumbling, century-old bridges and electrical equipment.
Boston's MBTA proposed "massive fare increases and widespread cuts" to close a $160m deficit in January. On Tuesday, the Massachusetts legislature came through with last-minute funding. The one-year fix, however, ensures that the fiscal crisis will soon return.
Political and popular will, however, can still make big projects happens. In Los Angeles, local sales tax hikes have funded an impressive expansion of light-rail lines. But the Metropolitan Transit Authority has also cut more than 650,000 hours of bus service in recent years, a major hardship for the working poor who depend on buses to commute across the sprawling and car-dominated metropolis. The Bus Riders Union accused the agency of having "knowingly discriminated against bus riders of color"; the Federal Transit Administration, which undertook a civil rights investigation, called the cuts "disturbing".
"...transit agencies and other public entities are now stuck owing billions in interest payments to the very same banks taxpayers had just bailed out."
Shifting to mass transit is not only critical to staving off an ecological crisis, it is also key to getting out of our economic one: the expansion of rail and bus lines drives development, creating jobs while making it easier for the rest of us to get to our existing ones. The reverse is also true. The dismantling of mass transit has, like cuts to other public services, erected a massive roadblock on the path to economic recovery: 706,000 public sector jobs have been eliminated since the stimulus topped out in April 2009, according to a Wednesday report in the New York Times. While the private sector adds jobs, public sector austerity is driving the American economy off the tracks.
Pittsburgh, which is set to cut about half of its bus lines, is a case in point. DialAmerica delayed plans to open a new 150-person call center in the city because the company, according to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal, says they are concerned that employees wouldn't be able to get to work.
Pennsylvania Republican Governor Tom Corbett, who signed Grover Norquist's tax pledge during his 2010 campaign, has refused calls from labor and business leaders to raise revenue to deal with the state's infrastructure needs – estimated by his own transportation commission to be $3.5bn in necessary work. When I asked what the governor planned to do about the crisis in Philadelphia, I was told that we were on our own.
"It is incumbent upon SEPTA," PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters told City Paper, "to meet operational and safety requirements."
There was a time when business-minded conservatives understood that, ultimately, government did serve some purpose – if only to create an environment favorable to business. Members of both parties have for decades supported basic funding of the nation's trains and buses. But Corbett's counterparts in Washington now deliver that same heady combination of obliviousness and hostility. The derision of mass transit as a socialist import of European origin, which happens to be perceived also as a welfare subsidy for the black and urban poor, has now seized the entire Republican body politic. Most bizarrely, Tea Party activists around the country have attacked everything from bike lanes to high-speed trains as part of a United Nations conspiracy to create a "one-world order".
"Federal transportation and infrastructure policy has traditionally been an area of strong bipartisan agreement," Aaron Naparstek, a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design and founder of Streetsblog.org told Salon:
"Now, it seems, Republicans want to turn cities into a part of the culture wars. Now it's abortion, gay marriage and subways."
Earlier this year, House Republicans proposed eliminating the 20% of transportation dollars dedicated to mass transit since Ronald Reagan first signed it into law in 1982. In response, mass transit advocates mobilized suburban Republicans, alongside big business, to oppose the move: mass transit serves as important connective tissue in the large metropolitan economies that drive the economy on a regional and national level.
Yet, long-term transit funding is still uncertain, as Republicans now insist that a new transportation bill include an unrelated amendment designed to fast-track approval for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline – together with a move that will save few dollars but sends a potent message to the base: an amendment to bar the use of federal dollars for bike lanes. The last six-year transportation bill expired three years ago, and funding has, since then, been dolled out in three- and six-month increments.
Meanwhile, the financial titans who brought us to edge of abyss are profiting from cash-strapped transit agencies, which are paying out millions of dollars every year to Wall Street, thanks to toxic derivatives. In a little-discussed but critical moment of the pre-crash deregulatory fever, transit agencies – along with school districts and city governments – agreed to esoteric "interest-rate swaps" with banks in order to protect against high interest rates on bond payments. The theory was that banks would get paid at a fixed rate, in exchange for them paying transit agencies at the variable rate. But after the financial system went into crisis, the Federal Reserve drove interest rates to rock-bottom levels. As a result, transit agencies and other public entities are now stuck owing billions in interest payments to the very same banks taxpayers had just bailed out.
A recent study by the ReFund Transit Coalition found (pdf) that in the 12 regions surveyed – including New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles – agencies lose more than $529m each year to Wall Street banks.
Transit riders and workers will have to organize throughout American cities and suburbs if there is to be any hope – not only of saving mass transit, but of undertaking the large-scale expansion we need for our economic and ecological well-being. Last week, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and Good Jobs First announced plans to do just that, creating Americans for Transit to fight cuts and help organize rider groups nationwide.
"Transit is a major social justice issue of our day," says ATU International president Larry Hanley. "Ridership is the highest in decades, but riders have suffered the worst wave of fare hikes and service cuts in post-war history."