Commentary

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As we honor Rosa Parks and her fight for transit equity, it’s time to put transit funding front and center

By Rick Bloomingdale, Frank Snyder and Laura Chu Wiens 

Today, Rosa Parks’ birthday, is National Transit Equity Day.

Here in Pennsylvania, and across the country, transit riders, community organizations, environmental justice groups, and unions are spreading the message that public transit is not only foundational to our economies and communities, but is also a civil right.

In 2013, Act 89 created a dedicated funding stream for transit in PA. That $450 million yearly investment, while not enough to create excellent transit, has been essential in stabilizing our transit systems and service over the past 10 years. Starting this year, that dedicated funding will disappear.

Last July, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission made its final $450 million payment to the Public Transit Trust Fund.

Replacement of those funds will now have to come from the highly contested General Fund. That will pit public transit funding against other critical expenditures, such as education and healthcare for veterans and children. Losing a dedicated funding stream for public transit will lead to constant uncertainty about revenue, deferred maintenance, and a negative feedback loop of diminished transit service and ridership.

Workers in road and rail construction, transit vehicle maintenance, and transit operations across the Commonwealth are at risk of layoffs and reduced hours.

Businesses may find it more difficult to recruit and retain employees who need reliable transit to get to work. At the same time, we may miss the opportunity to improve and expand transit projects using funds from the federal government’s historic infrastructure package, which are only available if states or cities provide matching funds.

Despite all this, the Pennsylvania Legislature has not yet held a single discussion about how to address this looming crisis.

We are calling on our state lawmakers to find a dedicated, expanded source of funding to address deferred maintenance needs and to improve transit service in all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.

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Transit riders and workers from Erie to Scranton, Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, have been sounding the alarm, and it’s time to heed their call.

They are experts in the system, and should have a voice in deciding the future of public transit in our state. It is together with these riders and workers that we created the Transit for All PA! Platform, calling for expanded, dedicated funding for public transit and a suite of policies to ensure that those funds would be used effectively and equitably. To date, more than 75 organizations and 23 legislators have signed on in support.

Transit Equity Day is observed on Rosa Parks’ birthday because she was a catalyst for a movement that highlighted access to transportation as a civil right.

Transit enables millions of working people, seniors, people with disabilities, youth, and immigrants to lead fulfilling lives through fixed route or shared-ride paratransit services in every county in PA. Our state’s public transit systems also directly create tens of thousands of good union jobs – for laborers in the road and rail construction industry, for the transit supply chain manufacturers across PA’s rural and urban areas, and for transit maintenance workers and operators.

Over the last two years we’ve seen both how fragile and how essential our transit systems are. We need legislators to take action now to ensure that transit is stable and effective to confront all of the pending economic, environmental and public health crises that we know are looming.

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Whether it is reducing the number of cars clogging our roads and polluting our air, getting people to work and school, or providing access to food, healthcare, and other services for elderly, disabled, and low-income residents – buslines are lifelines.

It’s time to give transportation agencies the dedicated funding they need to provide reliable, fast, and affordable transit service.

Public transit is a powerful tool that protects our environment, improves our health, boosts our economy, and ensures an equitable and just society for all PA. It’s time our elected officials start recognizing it as such.

Rick Bloomingdale is the president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. Frank Snyder is the secretary-treasurer of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. Laura Chu Wiens is the executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit.

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