News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

September 25, 2019

Bernie’s Green New Deal can save public transportation

By Richard Marcantonio

Every day in the Bay Area, tens of thousands of working-class people rely on public transit service to get to jobs, grocery stores, schools and colleges, and friends and family. But even as ridership increases, dwindling transit service and ever-increasing fares have denied thousands the freedom to get where they need to go. 

Families of color, and especially seniors, youth, and people with disabilities are the hardest hit by each successive wave of service cuts and fare hikes. 

Each cut to transit service also means lost jobs. And not just any jobs — green, public-sector union jobs. 

Robust public transit isn’t just good for getting people around; it’s an essential part of solving the climate crisis. Transportation is the single largest contributor to U.S. carbon pollution (29 percent nationally, 40.1 percent in California), and passenger vehicles account for the largest share of that slice. In other words, a climate response without frequent, affordable, and reliable transit is not worthy of the name.

Given the multiple benefits of affordable 24/7 transit, the political silence on the issue of restoring and improving transit service is puzzling. Breaking through that silence, one presidential candidate is running on a bold vision that ties together transit, jobs, and climate change, and strikes a blow at the powerful companies who are blocking progress on all of these issues. That candidate is Bernie Sanders.

The ABCs of public transit finance

The federal government subsidizes cars in a big way. Of the nearly $250 billion the U.S spent on roads and mass transit in 2017, more than three-quarters went to building and maintaining roads and highways. Less than a quarter of that funding subsidizes public transit. (That wasn’t Donald Trump’s fault; the share of federal funds for roads and highways relative to transit has hovered between 70 and 80 percent for many years.)

But there’s a bigger problem: With some exceptions, money from the federal government that’s marked for transit use actually cannot be used to pay the people who make the transit run or to make it more affordable for riders — that is, the U.S. provides financial subsidies for new buses, trains, and train tracks, but not for the drivers and mechanics who keep those buses and trains in service, and not to help the riders who depend on those buses and trains. 

It wasn’t always like this. In an attack on unionized transit workers and their working-class riders, the Clinton administration cut the subsidies that went to transit workers and riders in 1998. The federal government still provides funding for transit infrastructure; but what’s the point of paying for new trains and tracks if they’re either going to be unaffordable to ride (like BART’s half-billion dollar Oakland Airport Connector), or sit empty in a yard somewhere because there’s no money to pay drivers?

The ironic result of this defunding, as the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) notes, is that many transit systems “are in the odd situation of having brand new buses purchased with federal money, but no state and local funds to place those vehicles into service.” This transportation crisis, ATU continues, “clearly marks the need for transit systems to have the flexibility to use their federal funds for operating costs to maintain critical service.”

Bernie stands alone

Bernie Sanders understands that problem. Only a few weeks before ATU Local 192 voted to authorize a strike against AC Transit, he released his jobs and climate platform, the Green New Deal

Included in the $16.3 trillion, 10-year blueprint is a proposal to make a huge investment in transit operations. Sanders proposes to “expand transit service to communities” by making “a $300 billion investment” that will “increase public transit ridership by 65 percent by 2030.” By taxing corporations and the ultrarich, and directing that substantial sum to transit operating subsidies that were cut by the Clinton administration, Sanders has joined the fight to restore vibrant, reliable, and affordable public transportation in a way that no other candidate has done.

What could $30 billion a year for 10 years do for our ailing and unaffordable transit systems? In 2017, state and local agencies across the country spent $240 billion on transit operations and maintenance combined. The Sanders plan would mean a boost in total operating revenue for transit of at least 12%, easily enough to spark a virtuous cycle in which more frequent service and lower fares lead to greater ridership which, in turn, creates a larger political constituency for transit and brings in even more fare revenue to fund additional service improvements.

What do other candidates have to offer? Joe Biden’s climate platform promises to give states and locals “more flexibility to use any new transportation funds to build safer, cleaner, and more accessible transportation ecosystem” (emphasis added), but says nothing about how much those “new” funds would amount to or whether they could be used for increased service. Elizabeth Warren’s climate plan speaks vaguely about “put[ting] real dollars behind … building a 21st century transportation system,” but doesn’t mention public transportation at all, much less spending to operate it. 

Bus riders and transit workers have fought the forces of austerity and privatization for years in an effort to save both union jobs and transit as a public good. They are joined, at long last, by one champion in Congress: only Sen. Sanders recognizes that there is no solution to the climate crisis that does not include frequent, affordable, and reliable public transit for all. And he alone understands that no one will provide that world-class transit if we don’t create hundreds of thousands of new jobs for union drivers and mechanics.