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.

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