Tagged: Congress

The 1% Don’t Ride Public Transit

When one’s experience getting from point A to point B on a daily basis is being chauffeured in a town car behind tinted glass, isolated in a pod from humanity, and any possibility of friendship or congress with human beings, it may be difficult to understand the concept of public transit. Unfortunately, its seems more and more in this country those are the people making the policy decisions that affect public transit.

The fate of our public transit systems, and unfortunately our entire nation’s crumbling transportation infrastructure, still lay in the balance this week.  Yesterday the Senate failed in getting the necessary 60 votes needed to invoke cloture, end debate, and move to a vote on its bipartisan Surface Transportation package.  Meanwhile the House chose an interesting means of moving forward, which seems to have fallen flat on its face.

It seems that the House Republican leadership was faced with crumbling support for their awful and inherently flawed energy-infrastructure package, and decided to split the bill into three sections that they believe would have a better chance of passing independently.

As a result the House intended to consider H.R. 7 as three separate packages: one focusing on transportation, one on energy production that will include language on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and the third dealing with federal pensions. The idea of splitting the measure is that House members would be able to “vote their consciences” on pieces of the bill without requiring them to vote on the entire thing. For instance, lawmakers could vote for the authorizing portions of the surface transportation title while voting against the changes to federal employee pensions. Then, if all the bills are passed separately, the House’s bill clerk would sew them back together and send them to the Senate as one bill.

The energy package (H.R. 3408) — which includes an expansion of oil shale exploration, new offshore leasing and an expansion of drilling in Alaska – passed the House on Thursday night by a vote of 237 in favor to 187 against, 21 Republicans voted against the bill, and 21 Democrats voted in favor of it.

However it seems that was about as far as they got, because on Wednesday the 15th, House Speaker John Boehner pulled the transportation bill from the floor, announcing that he was delaying the vote on the $260 billion transportation bill (HR 7) that was scheduled this week.  The House now waits to take it up again, and it will likely not be completed until after the President’s Day week recess, and even that is looking unlikely.

As much as Boehner uses double speak about this being a part of a transparent process, this debacle demonstrates that GOP leaders lack the votes to win approval of the package.  The politics they are playing with this bill (of which I’ve been critical) seem to now be biting them in the ass.

It seems there was some discussion in the Republican House Caucus this week over the use of one of the offsets in this package — a requirement that federal employees pay a greater share of their pension contributions (HR 3813) — which now seems (at least in part) to be included in the deal on the payroll tax cut extension instead. What that means for this House Surface Transportation package remains to be seen.

What is still evident is that the transportation piece of this legislation still threatens our nation’s public transportation systems through the controversial transit funding change that would move the mass transit account out of the Highway Trust Fund and open it up to the appropriations process. Urban Republicans and Democrats alike have come out against that move, saying it would jeopardize the long-term future of transit and could lead to cost-cutting, and they are correct in that assessment.

Policy ideas like the House’s controversial transit funding change demonstrate how out of touch some of the policy makers on Capitol Hill are with the realities that face the 99% of Americans on a daily basis.

When thinking about transportation in the United States, do these policy makers realize that currently in the United States nearly two-thirds of all residents in small towns and rural communities have few if any transportation options, that 41% of the population have no access to transit; and another 25% live in areas with below-average transit services?

Do they understand how that may relate to the statistics that nearly 20 percent of African-American households, 14 percent of Latino households, and 13 percent of Asian households live without a car?

Are they thinking about the 50% of older people who do not drive in the United States that stay home on a given day because they lack transportation options?

Is there any consideration for the nearly one in five Americans who face a physical challenge that impacts their ability to travel for their daily needs (i.e. use of wheelchair or diminished vision, hearing, or physical movement)?

It’s obvious to me that those drafting the mass transit provisions in H.R. 7 either aren’t thinking about these sectors of the population, are ignorant of these issues, or simply do not care.  How else do you explain including heavy-handed federal mandates forcing wholesale privatization of public transit systems? The elimination of dedicated funding for mass transit and replacing it with a mechanism that makes it necessary for transit advocates to fight to receive adequate funding every appropriations cycle year after year?

It seems obvious that these policy makers are either unaware, ignorant, or callously ignoring the fact that in the last year, more than 80 percent of the nation’s transit systems proposed to or already have eliminated transit routes, cut service hours, increased fares, or a combination of all of these. This is occurring even at a time when ridership on mass transit is at an all-time high and the need for affordable transportation and sustaining transportation jobs couldn’t be higher.

Instead of pushing through an ideological agenda hell-bent on shrinking government, driven by an obsession with free market solutions, that will devastate local transit agencies, jeopardize needed services and threaten jobs in mass transit, our nation’s policy makers should look at how the poor management ruining service delivery; the aging buses plaguing a city; or the inadequate investment that is causing mass disrepair of city infrastructure can be solved through investment and sensible reform.

We need to be sending this message to our nation’s policy makers.  They need to consider that transportation is the second largest expense, after housing, for households in the United States, surpassing food, clothing, and healthcare costs.  The affluent politicians driving the debate on public transit, may need an education about how low- and moderate-income households spend 42 percent of their total annual income on transportation, including those who live in rural areas, as compared to even middle-income households, who still spend almost 22 percent of their annual income on transportation.

Luckily, there are people in the United States working to make sure that our nation’s policy makers consider all of these factors.

Earlier this week, on February 13 and 14, I attended the New York State Transportation Equity Alliance’s (NYSTEA) two-day transportation equity conference in Albany.

After spending the majority of my time last week mired in what lead up to the above-described dealings with the surface transportation debate here in Washington, DC, it was nice to escape the beltway and head up to Albany NY, to have some great discussions with folks about why public transit matters to our nations communities, why public transportation needs to be adequately funded, and the importance of assuring that the riding public is represented on transit authority boards.

The conference was attended by key representatives of the organizations comprising the NYSTEA Coalition and the event was also open to other transportation advocates and practitioners around the state.  (Click here to view a complete conference agenda.)

The Monday morning session focused on the state transit funding situation in New York, and the need for change.  The panel provided the perspectives from state administration and transit authorities on their difficulties, while including the effects on the riding public.

At noon, all of us at the conference joined NYSTEA at a Transit Awareness Day rally in the “well” of the Legislative Office Building, and urged Albany to invest in transit and keep New York moving.  The rally was co-sponsored by the New York Public Transit Association (NYPTA) and NYSTEA and brought transit riders and operators together. By joining voices, we delivered our message loud and clear that public transportation needs funding!

The rally served to remind New York’s policy makers that when Albany short-changes transit, New Yorkers can’t get to work.  The good news is that the increased state operating assistance in Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget could mitigate upstate service cuts, but the rally served to remind the legislature that they must address long-term transit funding before it is too late. This is a sentiment we all need to be echoing on a national basis.

The rally was followed by a panel on Rider Representation, which was moderated by Cecil Corbin-Mark from WE ACT for Environmental Justice, and included Vincent Crehan, ATU Local 1342 and NFTA Board Member; Esperanza Martinez, Bus Riders Union; and Leah Golby, Capital Region Transit Advocates. The panel focused on the need for the voting representation of transit riders on transit authority boards, difficulties posed by board dynamics, and challenges faced in campaigns. It seems only logical that on a local, state, and federal basis the decisions that affect our nation’s transit systems should have input from the people who ride and depend on public transit.  The Surface Transportation bills in front of the U.S. House and Senate would benefit incalculably from such input.

Later on Monday afternoon, I participated in a panel discussion organized by the local NY State Apollo Alliance.  The topic of the panel was “Jobs through Transit” and also featured President John Samuelsen of Transport Workers Union Local 100, John Loughran a transportation planner from FXFOWLE, and Ed Murphy of the Workforce Development Institute.  Our discussion focused on the variety of ways that expanded transit service can put New Yorkers back to work. From the manufacturers who build buses, to the drivers who operate them, to the builders of transit-oriented communities, investment in public transit means good, green jobs for New Yorkers.

Throughout the day there were great discussions on equity issues in transportation and issues facing transit riders, and I’d like to thank Cecil Corbin Mark and Jake Carlson from WE-ACT, Peter Fleischer from Empire State Future, Elizabeth Yeampierre of UPROSE, and Jeff Jones from the New York State Apollo Alliance for bringing me up to Albany, NY so I could partake in the day’s activities.

Tuesday morning kicked of a day of legislative advocacy, with a panel on the need for transit justice organizing in New York State. The panel drew on the experiences of groups doing the work upstate (VOICE Buffalo), downstate (UPROSE), and across the country (Bus Riders Union).  The panelists then lead breakout sessions that went into some training and strategies around organizing – including recruitment and base-building, communications, and power-mapping and coalition building.

It was an experience I wish all the elected officials looking to slash the funding of public transit could have had.  Maybe, if some of them got out of their chauffeured vehicles, and looked out from behind their tinted windows, and actually mingled with some of us on the bus or the subway, they’d do a better job governing. But alas, the 1% don’t seem to ride public transit…

What’s the Point in Controlling Congress, if You Have No Interest in Governance?

Let me start by providing some perspective.

Based on the current jobs numbers, 12.8 million Americans remain unemployed in the United States.  This means more people are unemployed than the combined populations of New York City, Los Angeles, and Boston.  Currently, 1.4 million construction workers are amongst those people, making up roughly 10% of the currently unemployed Americans.

Meanwhile the eighth funding extension of the last surface transportation authorization runs out on March 31, 2012.  It is not the time for Congress to remain mired in the partisanship we currently see.  Our elected officials need to wake up and enact legislation to put people back to work.  Now is the time for Congress to pass a bipartisan, multi-billion-dollar re-authorization of transit and highway programs.

Such a bill would allow states to hire these 1.4 million construction professionals to work building our nations roads, bridges, and transit systems.  This same legislation could also include a national strategy to leverage our federal transportation investments to build a modern, efficient transportation system to create quality, high-paying manufacturing jobs.

Congress has the ability to pass a surface transportation bill that lays a foundation for a long-term economic recovery strategy that creates millions of American jobs; provides increased transportation options and alternatives to fossil fuels; and recognizes our potential to invent and manufacture cleaner vehicles and transit systems here at home, instead of sending our dollars overseas.

Yet this is not what is happening in Congress.

Right now the Republican controlled House of Representatives has put forth a bill they call the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act of 2012 (H.R. 7), which the U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood (a Republican who spent 14 years in the House, & six on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee) has called “the worst transportation bill” he’s seen in decades. It is also a bill that the New York Times editorial board called “terrible.” In my opinion it is also a bill that puts policies in place that will cost current transportation workers their jobs.

It frustrates me to no end that while there is no time to waste to enact a surface transportation bill that puts millions of Americans to work fixing our transportation system that is falling apart, that the House puts forth a bill designed to serve the interests of K Street lobbyists and their corporate clients at the expense of the American people.

H.R. 7 undoes much of the good work the U.S. Department of Transportation has done over the last 3 years, and if enacted will have a chilling effect on jobs in the transportation sector.

The bill includes heavy-handed federal mandates forcing wholesale privatization of public transit systems. For example, transit agencies could only maximize their federal share of funding if they agree to privatize major portions of their operations. These mandates represent a radical departure from bipartisan policy that has left privatization decisions to local transit authorities. If enacted this would most likely cause layoffs of public transit workers across the country.

This is nothing more than a return to Bush administration policies that go beyond economics.  These provisions are about shrinking government and are driven by an obsession with free market solutions that often are neither appropriate nor practical.

For years anti-government zealots have told policy leaders that if poor management ruins service delivery; if aging buses plague a city; or if inadequate investment is causing mass disrepair of city infrastructure, then privatization – instead of investment and sensible reform – is the solution.

In this bill public mass transit is targeted by pro-privatization activists who, despite evidence to the contrary, believe the private sector can always deliver these services more efficiently while saving taxpayer dollars.  These advocates for mass transit privatization forget that our federally supported transit network was created in the aftermath of bankrupt or near bankrupt private operators in the late 1950s and early 1960s who could not operate a private, profitable mass transit system.  Yet, these advocates of wholesale privatization of mass transit declare that competition and private sector discipline will bring cost savings for taxpayers.  Their claim ignores a growing body of evidence which demonstrates severe problems of startling cost overruns, threats to safety and shabby service caused by poorly conceived privatization and contracting initiatives.  In order to meet the nation’s transit needs, our federal policies must invest the necessary resources to expand, not destroy, public transit services, and to impose more rigorous performance, labor and safety standards on private contractors when they are allowed.

What I find even more egregious is that as if this language in the base bill was not enough, the House Ways & Means Committee’s proposal to finance this bill, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Financing Act of 2012 (H.R. 3864) guts the Mass Transit Account (created by Congress with the blessing of President Ronald Reagan in 1982) by diverting nearly half of the federal investment in public transit ($25 Billion) that comes from dedicated fuel tax revenue.

What this means is that the Mass Transit Account which currently receives roughly 2.86 cents of the 18.4-cent-per-gallon gas tax, is eliminated, and to the extent fuel tax receipts for FY 2012 were already credited to the Mass Transit Account, this bill requires that money to be transferred from the Mass Transit Account to the Highway Account of the Highway Trust Fund.   Under this bill, going forward the gas tax will only fund highways.

In place of the Mass Transit Account, this package creates an “Alternative Transportation Account” and puts in it a one time $40 Billion transfer from the General Fund.  While Republican lawmakers argue that $40 billion is more money than the original trust fund, the yearly allotment of transit money would have to be fought for every appropriations cycle year after year, and after 2016, there is no more dedicated funding. This move will devastate local transit agencies, jeopardize needed services and threaten jobs in mass transit. It also comes as ridership on mass transit is at an all-time high and the need for affordable transportation and sustaining transportation jobs couldn’t be higher.  The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) has some more great info on why this is a very bad idea, I suggest reading it.

Now in this age of austerity, with the Republican Party more concerned about deficit reduction than creating jobs, there is no way $40 billion dollars is coming out of the general fund, without an offset, or a pay-go. In non-wonk speak they have to fill the giant $40 billion whole they created in the General Fund with $40 Billion from somewhere else.  Now where are Republicans going to find that money?  Create a new user fee? a new tax?  No, that might be rational, instead they are going to pay for it … wait for it … with federal workers pensions!   Yes the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s bill H.R. 3813 Securing Annuities for Federal Employees Act of 2012  aka “Federal Employee Pension Reform” uses federal employees as a piggy bank to put the $40 billion taken from the General Fund for the new “Alternative Transportation Account” back in the General Fund.

This proposal would increase employee contributions to the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) and the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS) by 1.5 percent of their salaries over a three-year period, starting next year.  Employees enrolled in FERS currently give .8 percent of their paychecks to the pension fund.  In short, most federal employees would pay more for pensions worth less. Conveniently, the savings from those provisions would be somewhere around $40 billion.  All this so House Republicans don’t have to raise the gas tax.

However that is not all.  Here are a few other reasons why this House package is so bad:

  • Slashes Amtrak’s funding by one-third at a time when the company is experiencing record success, killing good, middle-class jobs, threatening vital Amtrak services and placing passengers at risk
  • Rolls back vital transportation safety programs such as firefighter training and health and safety protections for workers transporting hazardous materials.
  • Opens nearly all of America’s coastal waters to oil and gas drilling, including environmentally fragile areas that have long been off-limits in order to raise revenue to help make up what has become an annual shortfall for transportation financing.
  • Demolishes significant environmental protections by imposing arbitrary deadlines on legally mandated environmental reviews of proposed road and highway projects, and by ceding to state highway agencies the authority to decide whether such reviews should occur.

House Republicans know that these funding proposals and many other policies are not going to be accepted by the Senate.  Moreover, the majority of these decisions were made behind close doors, with neither an opportunity for public input, nor (in some cases) consultation of the minority party.

Instead of working on a bi-partisan bill that would put Americans back to work, it seems more and more that this legislation is first designed to promote the agenda of corporate interests who fund elections during an election year.  Conveniently, it also attacks many of the interests of traditional Republican political adversaries.

This is not governance, this is bold political strategy.  This is using a position designed to serve the American citizens, to design legislation to serve your party in an election year in the hope it will please contributors to your PAC, while weakening the support of your political opponents, wearing them down, and making them expend resources that would be used otherwise in an election year to defeat politically pointed proposals. This legislation and the process involved in its crafting is the epitome of what is wrong in with our government in Washington, DC.

With its archaic rules, and inability to do anything without 60 votes, I usually consider the U.S. Senate to be the place where good ideas go to die.  However, the current lot running things in the U.S. House of Representatives are making the US Senate look downright progressive.  As milquetoast as I personally may find many of the provisions in their Surface Transportation package (MAP-21 & The Federal Public Transportation Act)  to be (compared to what I think they could do) at least they can put their differences aside and try to put a compromise forward that will put people to work.

At least the Senate is proving it still has an interest in governance.  Until the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives can prove they have an interest in governance, they shouldn’t have the control of that governing body. It is no wonder this Congress is less popular than polygamy.

On behalf of the 12.8 million Americans who remain unemployed, we all need to assure those around us are aware of what is being done and organize to make sure that those responsible for crafting policies to assure a long-term economic recovery strategy, have that, and not the next election, as their main interest.