Standing together (apart) for transit

TransForm headshot for the Policy Advocacy Manager, Hayley Currier

 MTAphotos/Andrew CashinThis was supposed to be an uplifting year for Bay Area transit—the year we would vote for a transformative region-wide transportation funding measure. Instead, 2020 turned out to be the year of the coronavirus, which has created an existential crisis for public transit and the people who depend on it. As we navigate uncharted territory, TransForm and our partners are using the network we’ve built to meet the new challenges we face.

For more than two years, TransForm has helped lead Voices for Public Transportation (VPT), a coalition of equity, environmental, labor and community advocates who came together to shape that regional measure and #MobilizetheBay. We saw the yawning gap between the robust public transportation system we need and the one we have. Bridging that gap would require massive investments that center the needs of transit-dependent riders and low-income communities and create viable alternatives to driving for many more people.

Now, along with many of our partners from VPT, we find ourselves fighting for transit’s survival, not transit excellence, as ridership and revenues plummet. We’re urging most people to stay off transit, even as we work to make it safe and functional for those who still rely on it, including as many as 142,000 frontline workers in the Bay Area. Transportation needs investment more than ever, but suddenly it’s to replace billions in revenues lost as a result of the pandemic.

As ever, transportation justice must be part of the solution to achieve more just, sustainable communities. Long-standing racial, environmental, economic, and health disparities have made people of color and people who were already struggling especially vulnerable to the medical and financial ravages of COVID-19. Ensuring transit is serving the needs of those who need it now, and that it will remain strong enough to serve us all as we move into a green, just recovery are huge challenges.

We can’t meet these challenges alone, and we’re particularly grateful for the allyship of Bike East Bay, East Bay Center for the Blind, Friends of Caltrain, Genesis, Public Advocates, San Francisco Transit Riders, Seamless Bay Area, Urban Habitat, and Youth Leadership Institute, the core members of the VPT coalition.

Federal transit relief arrives in the Bay Area

After winning $25 billion of federal relief money for transit nationwide, we turned our attention to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), our regional planning authority, which is distributing the Bay Area’s share, $1.3 billion, among local transit agencies. MTC must take a leadership role in ensuring a coordinated regional response to the crisis that prioritizes health and safety, so that necessary service cuts are strategic across agencies and don’t lead to crowding on transit vehicles.

On April 20, TransForm and 23 partners, including the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) locals representing transit operators, asked MTC to set aside 5% of the first half of the federal relief dollars to ensure our region’s 27 agencies follow best practices for health and safety. That includes sufficient Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for drivers, plexiglass protectors, rear-door boarding, limiting crowding, and hazard pay for workers. Each agency should receive funding and supplies not based on their pre-COVID farebox recovery numbers, but on their current need.

Unfortunately, MTC basically ignored this request made by frontline workers and left safety standards up to each operator, while promising to “monitor” their practices. In a follow-up survey of operators, MTC found drastic differences in their emergency safety responses. Only 45% of operators had installed barriers for drivers, as requested by ATU. MTC should set standards for all operators to follow and to ensure they are actually being met. Ask MTC to ensure safety for transit workers and riders by signing this petition from ATU.

MTC will distribute the second half of federal relief dollars (around $500 million) in July, and we’re already calling for regional planning and coordination that responds to the needs of the present and evolves as the situation changes. AC Transit, for instance, is currently carrying more daily riders than BART. Service must be frequent enough to allow for social distancing on popular lines, and should increase during shift changes at hospitals and grocery stores, when buses are more likely to crowd. Transferring should be easier and free, children should ride free, and service cuts and eventual restoration must be coordinated to keep the overall network as connected as possible.

While MTC didn’t meet our demands for allocating federal relief dollars, they did create a Blue Ribbon Transit Recovery Task Force. We still need swift, decisive action as discussed here, but TransForm has accepted an invitation to sit on this new task force, and we hope it can be a vehicle for progress… we’ll let you know how that goes.

More state transit funding could be right under our noses

Even with the best policies to guide it, we know this $1.3 billion won’t go nearly far enough to save our system from painful service cuts and layoffs. So we are continuing to ask state leaders to move transportation dollars from highways and capital projects to transit operations — paying transit workers to keep buses and trains clean and moving.

The state faces a $54 billion budget gap due to COVID-19, but transit doesn’t need to compete for general fund dollars with education, unemployment benefits, health care, and other vital services taking big hits. We should prioritize transportation dollars where they are needed most — new roads and bridges are not facing existential threats right now, but transit is. For the sake of the climate, racial and social equity, and the livability of cities now and in the long term, it’s time to start shifting the focus of state transportation dollars.

At the same time, real oversight over how transit agencies spend their money must continue. Some legislators and transit lobbying groups say they need a freer hand and regulatory relief during this crisis, echoing the Trump Administration. But this emergency shouldn’t be an excuse for reprieves from well established clean air rules — even with these rules in place, air pollution is a huge public health problem that falls disproportionately on low-income communities of color, even before it increased vulnerable peoples’ risk of death from COVID-19. If anything, such rules need strengthening.

Continued financial oversight is also critical as transit agencies accept major infusions of relief dollars. If you agree with shifting the focus of state transportation dollars toward transit operations, and holding firm on regulatory oversight, please let your state legislators know.

Don’t forget about that regional funding measure

Though it certainly won’t happen this year, a regional funding measure is still sorely needed. Like everyone else, we are adapting to the new reality and now planning for 2022 or 2024. Measures like these take years to build the strong, broad-based coalitions required to win at the ballot box. A longer timeline means more time to fight for:

  • A publicly-led process where all stakeholders have a seat at the table — not a process led by corporate interests;
  • A progressive revenue source, which is more equitable and stable in uncertain economic times. Plus, our new poll shows that it is more popular among voters than a sales tax, so more likely to actually win;
  • Dedicated funds to ensure adequate bus and rail service that meets the needs of communities, and can’t be reallocated for capital projects;
  • Fare affordability, including creating one fare per trip, fare-capping to ensure paying per trip isn’t more expensive than buying a monthly pass, and free transit for youth, seniors, and people with disabilities.

We’ve always opposed a sales tax as the primary revenue source for a regional measure, and the deep economic depression to come makes that an even worse idea. Transit and transportation infrastructure, including for safe biking and walking, are essential public goods fully deserving of public funds both during and after this crisis. We need new ways to fund public goods that don’t overburden the people who can least afford it. Those who can pay more should do so.

With inequities widening before our eyes, and knowing how important freedom of movement will be for economic recovery, we can’t afford to let public transportation become another casualty of COVID-19. It’s a frightening possibility, but it’s avoidable. The need for rapid change means we must chart a new course towards a fairer, stronger, more sustainable transportation system in the long term.



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