As Public Transit Goes, So Goes the Nation

Edward Wytkind
May 10, 2017 · 4 min read

While public transit continues to be a lifeline for millions of Americans, too many transit agencies nationwide are failing with upkeep and modernization efforts and thus experiencing system failures. That isn’t just my opinion — the American Society of Civil Engineers gave transit a grade of D- in their 2017 report card.

The demand for public transit services remains near an all-time high and that popularity, combined with meager federal and local funding, is leaving passengers stranded at the station and the bus stop. They are left yearning for better and more reliable service. That is no way to run a commuter transportation system.

The employees that keep our transit systems running in the face of punishing austerity budgets are becoming collateral damage. They face job cuts. They are too often the victims of physical or verbal assaults and not enough is being done to stem this alarming trend. And they are seeing too many of their customers — many of whom barely get by in this economy — struggle as vital services are cut and debilitating fare hikes are implemented. This saddles cities and states with growing worries about how to pay for much needed investments.

The people we elect and send to Washington need to start worrying too. They need to start getting aggressive about shoring up cash-strapped transit agencies that have been victims of too much austerity, for too many years.

Here in the nation’s capital, riders of one of the largest transit systems in the country, WMATA, regularly experience delays and service disruptions due to safety problems and deteriorating infrastructure, resulting from years of neglect and budget woes. These conditions have even given rise to scapegoating tactics directed at the system’s employees by WMATA management. Not only are lawmakers ignoring a serious problem in their own backyard, they are turning a blind eye to similar issues all across the country — and it is time they face reality.

Neglected transit systems do not just affect individual riders or the workers who operate and maintain transit systems. They reverberate throughout entire communities and our nation’s economy. That’s because transit systems are drivers and creators of economic prosperity, and play a critical role in keeping our economy strong. The numbers speak for themselves: every dollar invested in public transit returns four dollars to the economy and every billion dollars invested in public transit creates and supports 50,000 jobs.

By enabling large numbers of skilled workers to live and work in a condensed area, transit systems give businesses access to a strong consumer base and the capable employees they need to thrive. Likewise, working families utilize transit systems for safe and efficient access to jobs, schools, health care and other services. And transit isn’t just a concern for big cities. Americans in rural and less-populated areas of our country benefit from transit.

If we permit WMATA-like problems to fester and transit systems to wither, Americans will be forced to find alternatives. Working people cannot just hope for the bus or train to arrive — they (and their employers) must have access to reliable public transit. The reality is that for most cities, both small and large, public transit is a path to achieving broader prosperity and addressing growing inequality.

Meanwhile, as we push towards a new era of public transit improvements, we also have a chance to be “market makers” in securing new, organic growth in U.S. transit and rail manufacturing as transportation agencies spend billions each year updating their aging fleets. The power of public purchasing is undeniable. If you raise the bar on the standards used to determine successful procurement, we will see a transportation manufacturing renaissance and good jobs will follow. Pair that vision with stronger Buy America rules and a commitment to hire in disadvantaged communities where single parents and veterans continue to struggle, and suddenly transit becomes an even more robust economic driver. At the heart of this vision is a proud coalition whose work is changing lives and reimagining our economy.

During a time of severe income inequality, research shows that public transit is critical to fixing the imbalance in our economy. Commuting time is emerging as a strong factor in determining whether people can escape poverty. Cutting service may seem like a tempting option for a budget-stressed transit agency. But for working people who lose their transit service, those decisions could be the difference between access to thriving city centers that offer good-paying jobs and isolation from the opportunities that make economic mobility possible.

We know by now that economic and job growth — in every sector — are highly dependent on a well-functioning transportation network, especially transit systems that knit together local and regional economies.

In other words — borrowing a historic line — as public transit goes, so goes the nation.

Edward Wytkind

Written by

Sr Advisor, AFL-CIO, UNITE HERE. Board Chair JMA. Former Pres TTD, AFL-CIO. Focused on automation, tech & future of work, mobility & infrastructure.

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