The road to a COVID-19 recovery has to include transit funding | Opinion

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By Joshua McNeil and Ryan Boyer

While in search of roads to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, Pennsylvania’s roads and transit systems are suffering.

Transit agencies such as SEPTA and PATCO in the Southeast, the Port Authority in Allegheny County, and Red Rose Transit Authority in Lancaster have enabled doctors, nurses, supermarket employees and other essential employees to get to work.

Despite essential employees depending on these agencies for transportation, the pandemic has cost transit agencies millions of dollars in lower ridership. Because there are also less drivers on the roads, tolls paid by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission that are supposed to help pay for Pennsylvania’s public transit systems are under threat as well.

In March, Congress passed the federal CARES Act that gave Pennsylvania’s transit systems enough funding to continue providing services in the short term. However, the pandemic is lasting longer than Congress anticipated, and transit systems are again facing the prospect of massive deficits.

A lack of funding puts the commonwealth’s transportation infrastructure at risk not only structurally, but also in its critical role in our economy, our health, and our environment. Our representatives in Congress must secure funding to keep public transit systems operating across the state.

Strong transit agencies are the lifeblood of our economy. At a time of record-high unemployment, investments in our public transit system is the ultimate job creation plan. The pandemic has reinforced the importance of living wages and benefits on union jobs. SEPTA alone employs more than 5,500 unionized employees in family-sustaining jobs in its transit division — many could lose their jobs in the face of service cutbacks.

It will be impossible to get our economy moving again without healthy mass transit systems that can connect employees to jobs. The consequences will be particularly devastating for workers in essential industries — the people who clean and staff our hospitals and operate the checkout lines at our grocery stores — and would significantly increase commute times and bad air as cars flood the roads.

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By reducing road congestion, public transit also reduces harmful emissions that cause smog while helping to fight climate change. This is particularly important at a time when we’re combating the worldwide spread of a respiratory disease that can cause serious complications for those suffering from asthma and other pre-existing pulmonary conditions aggravated by air pollution.

Almost a decade ago, Pennsylvania’s elected leaders came together in a bipartisan fashion to pass Act 89, a landmark investment that channeled billions of dollars into bringing our aging transit networks up to a state of good repair. These investments allowed transit agencies to purchase new buses and trains, replace outdated power substations to improve service reliability and expand local and regional service.

These investments are hugely important.  By themselves, SEPTA’s operations generate $2.3 billion in economic impact in Pennsylvania each year, supporting nearly 18,000 jobs and more than $1.4 billion in earnings. SEPTA’s procurement generated more than $1 billion in statewide economic activity in recent years, with more than 14 Pennsylvania counties receiving at least $1 million per year in contracts from SEPTA, according to a study by Econsult Solutions.

Regional transit organizations like PATCO support local economies, linking towns in South Jersey with Philadelphia’s Center City, and transporting thousands of employees each day to hospitals, research institutions, universities and other businesses.

If Washington fails to act, then transit systems across the commonwealth will be forced to make devastating service cuts that cripple our recovery efforts. As Congress debates another round of legislation to address the continuing crisis, Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation must prioritize funding for our transit systems.

In addition to the critical role they play in getting employees to work, transit agencies can use additional federal funding to make new infrastructure investments that will stimulate the economy in the short term while making Pennsylvania more economically competitive in the long term.  More construction jobs today.  Shorter commutes tomorrow. New business opportunities in the future.

We cannot let political gridlock in Washington create actual gridlock in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania’s working families deserve a stimulus that promotes good jobs and a healthy environment.

Our congressional leaders must demand that any federal stimulus package include help for struggling mass transit systems across our commonwealth.

Joshua McNeil is Executive Director of Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania. Ryan Boyer is the Business Manager of the Philadelphia and Vicinity Laborers’ District Council.