How to Keep America Moving

Since the first gavel struck in the 112th Congress, there’s been plenty of doomsaying about the future of public transportation in America — and many other vital public investments.

We have to be honest with ourselves: the blind, budget-slashing frenzy that rules in D.C. these days is a dangerous one. But my work with the Transportation Equity Network — a 41-state network of grassroots organizations including Honolulu’s FACE — leaves me more than hopeful. Americans understand that investments in public transportation mean access to jobs and opportunity. And they’re fighting for them like never before.

Late last year, TEN released a study called More Transit = More Jobs, which looked at transportation spending in 20 metropolitan areas across the U.S., including Honolulu. The study calculated the impact of shifting 50 percent of current highway spending to public transit instead. The result? Hundreds of thousands of new, long-term jobs at all skill levels, without a dime of new spending.

We also looked at the job-creation potential of passing a transit-friendly federal Transportation Authorization Act, as proposed by TEN and our allies at Transportation for America. We projected that doing so would create 1,291,431 new jobs in the transit sector over five years—an increase of almost 800,000 jobs over the current federal transportation law, which expired an astonishing 477 days ago [as of 1/19/11].

But direct job creation is only one way that transit investments expand access to opportunity.

At a time of economic hardship, every dollar counts. And last year, with our nation in the throes of economic crisis, voters around the country approved 77 percent of public transportation ballot initiatives, for a total of more than $1 billion. Why? In part because they understand that households that do use public transportation can save nearly $10,000 a year over car-dependent households.

It’s little wonder that the overwhelming majority of Americans want more public transportation, not less. In a poll by Transportation for America, 82 percent of voters said "the United States would benefit from an expanded and improved transportation system, such as rail and buses." Seventy-nine percent of rural voters said the same.

And if lack of transit access is an inconvenience for Americans who have other options, it can be a disaster for Americans who don't: low-income people, people of color, older Americans, and Americans with disabilities who rely on public transportation to get to work, school, church, and access medical care.

According to Dr. Robert Bullard, the father of the environmental justice movement, “African Americans are almost six times as likely as whites to use transit to get around. In urban areas, African Americans and Latinos comprise over 54 percent of transit users (62 percent of bus riders, 35 percent of subway riders, and 29 percent of commuter rail riders).” Any American who cares about racial and economic equity needs to care about transportation equity as well.

Ultimately, there's no shortage of good arguments for investing in public transportation in a big way. More transit means more jobs, greater racial equity, and expanded access to work, education, health care, and opportunity. All of those are things we need now more than ever. If our members of Congress and all out representatives in Washington truly care about our futures—as well as their own—they should show it through investments that keep America moving.

DISCUSSION: Join the conversation about the issues raised in this article and at the Equity Summit.

About the author: Laura Barrett is the Executive Director of the Transportation Equity Network (TEN), a 41-state grassroots network of more than 350 organizations working for a more just, prosperous, and connected America. She is also National Policy Director for the Gamaliel Foundation. In more than 20 years as a community organizer, Laura has helped win the largest per capita housing trust fund in America ($5 million annually), directed campaigns that won millions in public transportation funding, and has negotiated community benefits agreements and workforce development policies on the state, local and federal levels.

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To learn more about the summit:

The two-day Equity summit will be held Friday and Saturday at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. Registration begins at 6 p.m. Friday at the School of Nursing and Dental Hygiene. The event is free. The opening session begins at 6:30 p.m., a speech by James Koshiba, executive director of KANU Hawaii. Saturday runs from 9:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., with three sessions running concurrently throughout the day. Topics include Housing, Transportation, Agriculture, Jobs and the Economy, Health Care, Education, Banking and Finance, Religion and Immigration. To learn more, call 522-1304, e-mail or visit the group's website.

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