“I was frightened,” said the 70-year-old lifelong public transportation commuter. The ride from her downtown Rockville apartment to her volunteer gig at the Montgomery County Board of Elections in Gaithersburg felt like a minefield of germs. “The bus was so crowded both coming and going, I stopped riding,” she said.
Of course, the cuts by the Maryland Transit Administration had to come. Ridership throughout the regional transit system dropped up to 95 percent on some of its busiest routes at the height of the stay-at-home orders; services had to be slashed.
And the same thing happened throughout the nation. In New York and Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco and across the D.C. region, the superspeed growth of buses and rail cars pumping people into America’s great, resurging, vibrant cities over the past decade slowed to a trickle.
Billions of dollars in revenue from fares and taxes for the transit systems dried up. And the pandemic-era skeleton transit schedules created to serve the city’s blue-collar essential workers who can’t phone it in from home mean the fry cooks, hospital staffers, baristas, sanitation workers, janitors and electricians are being packed into a shrinking number of buses, train cars and trolleys. And don’t forget the vulnerable senior citizens like Brooks-Little.
Six feet apart? Six inches, maybe.
And now we see that thing folks are talking about these days: institutional racism.
This situation hits people of color hardest. The most recent Pew Research study on public transportation found that across the country, 23 percent of people who rely on it are Black, 15 percent are Hispanic and just 7 percent are White.
The death toll from covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, is also twice as high for people of color under the age of 65 than for Whites, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And more than half of the essential workers in the United States who can’t do their jobs from home are also people of color, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Public transportation, never first in line when it comes to government funding, is yet another institution primarily used by the lower half of the socioeconomic ladder that is always lacking in cash and support. (Notice a pattern?)
In Maryland, more drastic cuts to service were announced this week, cuts that could turn Brooks-Little’s packed buses into sardine cans, and which also included a total elimination of all the Express buses that link Baltimore to the suburbs.
There was outrage.
“During a public health emergency that continues to have devastating impacts, we should not seek to balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable,” said a joint statement by local leaders from across Maryland.
But the state’s transit system is in the hole, and Gov. Larry Hogan (R) proposed even more slashes to it to try to right the sinking, coronavirus economy.
These are the cutbacks that will hurt the working class hardest — especially people of color — making their commutes harder and their health more imperiled.
“Public transportation is absolutely a social justice issue,” said Evan Glass, a Democratic at-large council member in Montgomery County, where 65,000 workers who earn less than $30,000 are among those devastated by reductions in bus routes. “Access to transportation is the highest factor in someone’s success. If they cannot get to their job, their school, they cannot move forward with their lives. They are stuck.”
Fine, cut some now, restore it when we’re back to normal — right?
Not really. Glass and legislators across the nation know that once something has been cut, it’s twice the battle to get it back.
“My worry is that it will later be argued that cuts don’t merit restoration,” state Del. Robbyn T. Lewis (D-Baltimore City) said.
The Washington region’s Metro, the third-busiest system in the nation, took it in the other direction, restoring its rail service in August at the cost of digging a multimillion-dollar budget hole. The end of a summer with few tourists, students and workers meant riderless ghost trains crisscrossing the capital’s underground. Metro is now losing $2 million. Every. Single. Weekday.
And, according to reporting by The Washington Post’s Justin George, the agency is now facing the possibility of having to cut back, again.
Will the riders return?
Maybe not. Unemployment has rejiggered work patterns, so essential workers who can afford traveling by car — and the insurance, fuel, maintenance, and parking costs that come with it — are back on their own four wheels, while millions of white-collar folks who are working from home may keep telecommuting long after a coronavirus vaccine is as common as a flu shot.
So how do we float the system until the economy recovers and how do we get people back into the habit of commuting?
Without fares and local tax revenue to keep half a million transit employees employed and millions more who rely on transit to keep their jobs, the cash will have to come from the federal government. And it’s going to need a lot more than the $25 billion Congress gave to U.S. transit agencies in April with the Cares Act.
That didn’t even begin to cover losses and Congress knows it. The last raft of pandemic relief at the end of July contained zip about public transportation.
As lawmakers return to Capitol Hill next week, the American Public Transportation Association is asking for billions more. The head of the American Public Transportation Association, Paul P. Skoutelas, estimates it’ll take $32 billion for U.S. transit systems to survive.
It’s not only about thousands of transit workers on furlough. This is about millions of essential workers who keep America running, he said.
Glass said locally, the challenge is for folks who don’t need to commute to see the value, the collective, community importance of everyone being able to get a ride.
It may not feel as infuriating, heart-pounding and dramatic as the nation’s current reckoning with racism — but civil rights is about a bus seat, too.
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