Obama Stimulus Leaves Bus Riders By the Side of The Road

who_rides_bus_1.gifWho rides the bus? Data source: American Public Transportation Association

The House version of President Obama's stimulus plan has left bus riders with nothing to look forward to but stiff fare hikes and painful service cuts. Bus systems got zero in immediate operating support from the bill that passed yesterday -- stunning neglect compared to the $150 billion in educational "operating assistance" to local schools and universities and $127 billion in emergency health care "operating assistance" to state Medicaid and private insurance programs. A relatively puny request for $2 billion in transit operating support was shot down before even reaching committee.

Buses carry 59 percent of American transit riders and are the core of transit service in both urban and small town settings. But according to the New York Times:

Fifty-one transit systems have recently proposed service cuts or fare increases... (which) make it harder for people to get to work (or look for work), and they will undermine one of the long-term goals of the stimulus package: laying the groundwork for a greener economy.

The burden of these transit cuts falls disproportionately on African Americans, who comprise 38 percent of all bus riders in the country, compared to 12 percent of the overall population. (There's a reason that Rosa Parks acted for her civil rights on a bus.)

Unfortunately, the Obama administration and the House of Representatives have largely forsaken bus riders. It is now up to the Senate to provide emergency transit operating help to sustain service and reduce fare hikes. Otherwise, Americans will watch billions of stimulus dollars rain down on schools and hospitals while major transit systems teeter on the edge of insolvency, green collar jobs are cut, and energy-conserving transit riders are forced into cars.

There are a number of reasons why bus riders have lost out so badly in the struggle for stimulus help. One is that they have no effective lobby in Washington. This is partly the result of conventional thinking that hasn't caught up to the current crisis. Transit agencies and advocates tend to equate "transit" with "infrastructure" or capital expenditures, so the federal government is not expected to help with operating expenses. This formulation is generally biased against buses, which are cheap to buy but relatively costly to operate.

The "transit=capital" formula also ended up hurting overall transit aid because Obama fiscal czar Larry Summers believes that transit projects take too long to get underway, and are not a good way to inject money quickly into a depressed economy. Unlike local schools, whose teachers' unions made a strong case for an unprecedented infusion of $150 billion in federal operating help, transit agencies and their supporters have kept fighting for more capital aid and have not pressed their elected officials for the emergency operating help needed to bail out the nation's floundering bus and transit systems. This must change. The same arguments for emergency help to schools apply to bus service.

The failure of the stimulus to help bus riders will have big implications for the working class and poor Americans hardest hit by the recession: Bus riders will be spending more for less service, while green collar transit workers will face rounds of layoffs. It's bad public policy, bad urban policy and inequitable social policy. Not what bus riders were hoping for when they voted for Obama.