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As President Joe Biden urges more federal spending for public transportation, transit agencies decimated by COVID-19 are reportedly struggling with a new uncertainty: how to win passengers back. This is a factor that has been made more urgent as the U.S. confronts the climate change crisis.
To date, about 50% of transit riders nationwide have returned compared to pre-pandemic times, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Moreover, The American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave public transit an embarrassing D-minus grade for its crumbling network, citing one in five transit vehicles in “poor” condition” and a repair backlog of over $100 billion.
Transportation is the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. So in order to achieve climate targets, the country must significantly reduce its use of cars altogether. President Biden has reportedly pledged to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions at least in half by the end of the decade, placing much of the focus on electric vehicles and embracing mass transit.
With fewer transportation alternatives, lower-income people are more reliant on public transportation for commuting and their daily lives. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti has promised free transit fares for them and for students. Currently, a fareless pilot for students is in the works and could be launching soon. The city’s Metro ridership has fallen to about half its peak of 1.2 million, and Garcetti reportedly said getting more people on board would accelerate economic recovery “for our most vulnerable” and reduce the city’s traffic and emissions.
Transportation officials say a key to increasing ridership will be employers reopening offices. Even so, it could take years to get riders 100% back, if ever, putting lower-income workers at a greater disadvantage if service levels drop off.
Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan would provide $85 billion over eight years to update and replace subway cars and repair aging tracks and stations, in effect doubling the federal investment each year. It is the biggest increase in money for public transit in generations. Of that amount, $25 billion would reportedly be allocated to expanding bus routes and rail lines to persuade more people out of cars. An additional $25 billion would be devoted to converting gasoline- and diesel-powered mass transit buses to zero-emission electric vehicles.
However, congressional Republicans are balking at the price tag, as well as Biden’s plan to increase corporate taxes to pay for it. The Republican National Committee has reportedly argued that just 7% of the money in Biden’s $2.3 trillion plan covers infrastructure as they define it — which would leave public transit out of the mix.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says while commuting patterns may be shifting, now is the time to boost public transportation, not downsize it. “Today, Americans who rely on public transportation to get to work spend twice as long commuting as those who drive. And it’s not as reliable as it should be,” Buttigieg told The Associated Press. “A lot of this is because of the age of our transit infrastructure — across the country there are systems in urgent need of upgrade and modernization. Every American should have access to good options for affordable, fast, safe and reliable public transit — particularly those for whom transit is the only viable option.”