A Desire Named Streetcar

As U.S. working people try to cope with job losses, housing foreclosures and evictions, runs on banks, and pain at the gasoline pump, they face one more: the crisis of mass transit.

Here is the paradox: The gasoline price rise is taking people out of their autos. They are flocking to mass transit. But mass transit finances are collapsing. How come?

The paradox is caused in part by the soaring price of diesel fuel used by buses. Another cause: many transit systems depend on revenue from local sales and real estate taxes, and these funds have been plummeting due to the national recession. Moreover, in most medium-size and smaller U.S. cities, mass transit is also paid for by federal subsidies derived from the federal gasoline tax, but soaring gasoline prices have led to a cutback in miles driven and, therefore, a drop in revenue from federal gasoline tax collections. This is happening all across the country.

Item: Ridership is soaring in Pennsylvania’s 73 public transit systems. However, they lack a stable, dedicated funding source and revenues are failing to keep pace with operating costs. Without such a source, Pennsylvania transit systems will be forced to make drastic cuts in service. Workers will have difficulty getting to jobs, schools, doctor’s offices and stores.

Item: According to Cleveland Regional Transit Authority head Joe Calabrese, ridership is up 10 percent, but fares don't cover the cost of diesel fuel. “We may have to cut more service because we have to pay for the diesel fuel,” he said.

It gets worse: in Oklahoma City and in many other parts of the South and West, reliable anecdotal reports suggest that working people who live far from the job are using horses to get to work, cantering down the freeway.

Responding to a campaign spearheaded by the Amalgamated Transit Union, the largest mass transit union in the country, joined by other unions and environmental groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council, the House of Representatives passed the Saving Energy through Public Transportation Act of 2008 (HR 6052) on June 26. The bill's passage stunned Congress-watchers. Never before did a public mass transit funding bill pass on its own, unattached to a Highway Lobby bill. The bill authorizes $1.7 billion in emergency funding mainly for fuel to keep the buses rolling. Of that total, $237 million is earmarked for New York City, the country’s most mass-transit-dependent city. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) has introduced a companion bill in the Senate. The battle to pass the Senate bill and overcome a threatened Bush veto begins after the August recess.

Gasoline prices have come down a little in recent weeks, but most realistic forecasters believe that prices will never go back to the old levels. If they are right, the crisis of mass transit could offer an opportunity to turn around 60-year-old priorities that have reached a dead end. A resounding defeat of McCain in November, and markedly fewer Republicans in the Senate and House, could help set the stage for a people’s struggle to end overdependence on gas–guzzling private autos, and resulting urban sprawl and climate damage, and to begin a rational approach to mass transit and energy conservation.

Columnist Bob Herbert recently put it well:

“Sometimes the most logical, most obvious solutions are the most difficult to see … Put aside for a moment all the talk about alternative fuels. They are no doubt important and the wave of the future. But the fastest, cheapest, easiest and cleanest step toward a sane energy environment — a step available to all of us immediately — is the powerful combination of efficiency and conservation.”

Efficiency and conservation have enemies in high places. Beating the Highway Lobby (another name for the Big Oil, Big Construction and Big Banking lobbies) won’t happen without a struggle. The Pentagon is the biggest gas guzzler in the U.S. With U.S. aggressions raging in Iraq and Afghanistan and with some 725 bases around the world, the Pentagon burns 395,000 barrels of oil per day, equivalent to the consumption of medium-sized countries such as Greece.

But first things first. The immediate struggle is for federal funding to keep our existing public transit systems, inadequate though they are, functioning. For more information: www.unionvoice.org/campaign/gasprices/ and environmentaldefenseblogs.org/climate411/2008/07/23/public_transit_bills/