As Congress debates new legislation to provide relief to communities devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is essential that Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation prioritize additional funding to head off a brewing crisis that threatens the future of public transit. Despite tremendous operational and safety challenges, our tenacious transit workers have put themselves on the line to ensure that the people staffing our hospitals, grocery stores, and other essential businesses could continue getting to work to provide life-sustaining services.
Our state’s public transit systems are crucial for ensuring that Pennsylvanians can breathe clean air. By taking cars off congested roads, buses, trains and subways reduce harmful emissions that cause smog and worsen asthma — a fact made even more important now, when we’re battling a disease that poses serious risks for people with pre-existing respiratory problems. More cars also means more climate change, as transportation already spews more carbon pollution than any other sector.
In recent years, Pennsylvania has invested billions of dollars in bringing its aging transportation systems up to a state of good repair. Thanks to funding from Harrisburg under the state’s infrastructure law, known as Act 89, transit agencies have been able to rebuild aging stations, purchase new trains and buses and replace outdated power substations to improve service reliability.
Yet the pandemic is now threatening to destroy these vital transit systems.
Social distancing and business closures implemented to keep families safe and slow the spread of the virus are causing transit agencies across the commonwealth to hemorrhage money at the fare box. Other crucial existing funding sources for our transit agencies, including transfers from the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, are threatened by the impacts of the disease.
And though the previous federal assistance package, the CARES Act, provided funding to provide essential services in the short term, the pandemic has lasted longer than Congress had hoped. Without another infusion of emergency funds soon, transit agencies will be facing yawning deficits totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.
This could force transit systems to lay off workers and slash service. It could put workers and riders at greater risk by making it more difficult for cash-strapped systems to purchase masks and other personal protective equipment. It could increase traffic snarls, smog and asthma for decades.
We cannot allow this crisis to inflict long-lasting damage on our public transit systems.
Strong transit systems are the lifeblood of our economy. It will be impossible to get our economy moving again without vibrant mass transit systems that can connect employees to jobs. The consequences will be particularly devastating for essential workers. Serious service cuts would significantly increase commute times as cars flood the roads, negatively impacting air quality, putting children at greater risk for developing asthma and worsening the climate crisis as more tailpipe emissions fill the air.
Instead of allowing this crisis to curtail public transit service for a generation, Pennsylvania needs Congress’ help to ensure that systems have the resources to weather the pandemic and emerge stronger than before.
Investment in transit will create jobs, too, as transit agencies can use additional federal funding to make new infrastructure investments that will stimulate the economy in the short term while making Pennsylvania more economically competitive in the long term. More construction jobs building rail lines today. Shorter commutes and a more competitive business environment for the long term.
Because of gridlock in Washington, we know that it is now more difficult than ever to enact a comprehensive package that equips our commonwealth with the resources it needs to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But our working families deserve a stimulus that creates jobs for them and ensures that they can reach those jobs, all while protecting the air they breathe. Our congressional leaders must demand that any federal stimulus package include help for struggling mass transit systems across our commonwealth to aid essential workers, boost our economy and help protect our health.
Joshua McNeil is executive director of Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania.