Failure to Invest in Public Transportation Hurts Communities Across the Country

Larry Willis

Larry Willis President, Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO

The New York Times recently profiled the story—or the commute, rather—of Sheila James, a 61-year-old federal office worker who lives in Stockton, California, but works 80 miles away in San Francisco. She rises at 2 a.m. so she can catch a bus and two trains to get her job as a public health adviser. Her total commuting time? Three hours—each way.
 
This intense commute isn’t by choice. Sheila is part of a growing community of working-class men and women known as "extreme commuters" who, because of skyrocketing real estate prices and a lack of affordable housing, are forced to travel more than 90 minutes one way each day to get their jobs. For Sheila, and millions of Americans like her, a combination of public transit and commuter options aren’t just alternatives to the office carpool—they are lifelines to economic stability.

But strains placed on state and local budgets mean these vital services are under threat. During the Great Recession, agencies were forced to severely cut back by slashing routes and jobs while raising fares, and many of those cuts have yet to be restored. Reductions in service, maintenance and system expansions don’t just affect extreme commuters like Sheila—they have profound impacts on communities all across the country.

When systems don’t have funds for the most basic of needs, like maintenance, workers who rely on public transit to travel even short distances may find their commutes grueling, unpredictable and sometimes even life-threatening. The men and women who make a living operating and maintaining these systems are often forced to work with outdated equipment and insufficient manpower. And our country’s unemployed, underemployed and lowest-income populations, who can’t afford vehicles but can afford bus and subway fares, are put at an even greater disadvantage. In some cases, lack of access to public transportation can feel like the cruelest of jokes.

Take Minnesota’s Twin Cities, for example. A recent study by the University of Minnesotafound that the largest concentration of unemployed workers in the region lack fast or frequent transit service to available jobs. Researchers noted that disadvantaged jobs seekers are often qualified for entry-level positions located in the suburbs but have no way of actually getting to those jobs.

The same thing is happening in Chicago, where young, black adults face an unemployment crisis of startling proportions. While the state of Illinois’ unemployment rate is 4.6%, 60% of black 20- to 24-year-old Chicago residents do not have jobs. A recent study identified lack of public transportation options as a primary reason: The majority of jobs in Chicago are located downtown and on the city’s northwest side, far from Chicago’s traditionally black and disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Failing to address our nation’s commuting problems doesn’t just hurt those who use or want to use public transportation—these failures hurt the entire economy. Every dollar spent on public transit returns four dollars to our economy, and every billion dollars spent on transit supports or creates 50,000 jobs. When transit systems or commuter rail lines are built, workers in construction industries see job opportunities with good pay and solid benefits. And when paired with smart procurement strategies and strong Buy America rules, transit-related job creation is further maximized by ensuring bus and rail cars are made here, in the United States. Translation? Not investing in our transit systems costs our country jobs in other sectors and leads to missed opportunities for economic growth.

As lawmakers consider federal transportation funding next week, it is imperative they reject cuts to our nation’s transit and commuter rail systems and robustly fund these programs. At a time when so many Americans are relying on public transportation as a lifeline to good jobs, investments that will secure and expand these services are more important than ever.

But don’t take our word for it—just ask Sheila James.

This guest post from Larry Willis, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

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This has been reposted from the AFL-CIO.

Larry I. Willis was elected President of the Transportation Trades Department in 2017. As president, he oversees the organization’s daily operation and is TTD’s spokesperson and chief strategist. He collaborates with the officers of TTD’s 32 affiliated unions to fight for long-term investments in our transportation system and to protect and expand the rights working people have to a union voice.

Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

The Big Drip

From the USW

From tumbledown bridges to decrepit roads and failing water systems, crumbling infrastructure undermines America’s safety and prosperity. In coming weeks, Union Matters will delve into this neglect and the urgent need for a rebuilding campaign that creates jobs, fuels economic growth and revitalizes communities. 

A rash of water main breaks in West Berkeley, Calif., and neighboring cities last month flooded streets and left at least 300 residents without water. Routine pressure adjustments in response to water demand likely caused more than a dozen pipes, some made of clay and more than 100 years old, to rupture.

West Berkeley’s brittle mains are not unique. Decades of neglect left aging pipes susceptible to breaks in communities across the U.S., wasting two trillion gallons of treated water each year as these systems near collapse.

Comprehensive upgrades to the nation’s crumbling water systems would stanch the flow and ensure all Americans have reliable access to clean water.

Nationwide, water main breaks increased 27 percent between 2012 and 2018, according to a Utah State University study.  

These breaks not only lead to service disruptions  but also flood out roads, topple trees and cause illness when drinking water becomes contaminated with bacteria.

The American Water Works Association estimated it will cost at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years to upgrade and expand water infrastructure.

Some local water utilities raised their rates to pay for system improvements, but that just hurts poor consumers who can’t pay the higher bills.

And while Congress allocates money for loans that utilities can use to fix portions of their deteriorating systems, that’s merely a drop in the bucket—a fraction of what agencies need for lasting improvements.

America can no longer afford a piecemeal approach to a systemic nationwide crisis. A major, sustained federal commitment to fixing aging pipes and treatment plants would create millions of construction-related jobs while ensuring all Americans have safe, affordable drinking water.

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