Metro, national transit workers rally on Capitol hill for more federal funding

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Thousands of local and national transit workers rallied Tuesday on Capitol Hill for greater and more flexible federal funding for the country's ailing public transportation systems.

About 200 Metro employees were among the estimated 3,000 transit workers from Washington, New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Baltimore, Atlanta and other cities and states who chanted, waved signs and urged lawmakers to pass legislation to increase transit funding and allow federal money to be used to meet immediate shortfalls in operating budgets.

"We want to get federal money for the operating budget," said Jackie L. Jeter, head of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689, noting that Metro could lay off as many as 300 workers, given a $189 million shortfall in its $1.4 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

One specific change the transit workers want would lift a restriction in the federal transportation program that requires cities with populations above 200,000 to use their federal funds only for capital expenses and not for operations.

The six-year federal program is up for reauthorization, and a House bill that would end that restriction has 115 co-sponsors, said Jeffrey M. Rosenberg, legislative director for the local ATU. The bill would allow transit systems in cities with populations greater than 1 million to use as much as 30 percent of their federal formula funds for operations and offer an incentive to increase that percentage further if the localities that fund the systems step up their contributions, he said. "The bill would give larger transit systems the flexibility to use their federal funds to prevent layoffs and service cuts," Rosenberg said.

The unions are also seeking passage of another stimulus bill, which would provide $8.4 billion for public transit and allow 10 percent of that to be used for operations, union officials said.

The rally was the first of its kind by the two major transit unions, the ATU and the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU), organizers said. "We've never worked together this closely," said Craig Simpson, political and legislative representative for ATU Local 689. "Every city is struggling to keep their transit system running."

Jeter and other union officials and activists -- including the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, ATU President Warren S. George and TWU President James C. Little -- spoke to demonstrators, underscoring the benefits of robust public transportation systems for the environment, reducing traffic congestion, limiting dependency on foreign fuel imports, and sustaining urban and suburban economies.

"Mass transit is the center of American life," Jackson said.

Jim Madaras, an information technology technician and maintenance worker employed at Metro for 26 years, said he views Metro as the Washington region's circulation system, without which the area could not survive. He said that in addition to federal sources of funding, large local companies that benefit disproportionately from their proximity to the Metro network should be required to help pay for the service. "The businesses that have lucrative profits in and around the subway should be required to fund the system at some level," Madaras said.

The threat of layoffs was another major concern for those at the rally.

"Who moves America?" one activist shouted.

"We do!" yelled the workers, wearing hats and T-shirts showing their union affiliations and carrying signs bearing slogans such as "Don't cut the bus route."

Quincy K. Jones, a Local 689 executive board member who has worked for Metro as a bus driver for 10 years, said he is concerned about the possibility of layoffs for less-experienced drivers. "I'm fighting for those beneath me in seniority," he said.

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