Lawmakers in Harrisburg are on the clock to pass legislation that will continue support for working class and communities of color, boost the state’s economy and improve air quality, as funding for public transit is scheduled to sunset at the end of 2022.
Act 89, bipartisan legislation signed by former Governor Tom Corbett in 2013, provided the largest investment in public transportation in decades. But we can’t afford to let the state’s highly partisan politics derail necessary, commonsense legislation to address this looming issue.
It’s not just the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh that benefit from this. There is no urban-rural divide. In fact, this investment helped local economies, local workers, and local environments in 35 counties across the state.
"Before Act 89, transit agencies across the commonwealth had to scramble for funding," said Katie Blume, Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania’s (CVPA) political director.
We can’t afford to slip back into that unsustainable model. Here’s what we know.
COVID-19 highlighted how important public transit is — even when numbers dip because of public health precautions during a pandemic. SEPTA and other public transit workers are essential workers who help other essential workers get to hospitals, grocery stores and other places of employment all across the state.
“Systems like those in Midstate Pa. where more of the riders are likely to be going to in-person work, or essential work, have seen smaller reductions in ridership,” Stephen Miller, communications lead for the Transit App, told Harrisburg’s ABC27.
And let’s keep in mind, not everyone has the luxury to hop in a car or work from home, especially these essential heroes. Richard Farr, executive director of both York County-based rabbittransit and Harrisburg-based Capital Area Transit, explained to ABC 27 the class nature of public transit when he pointed out, “Our riders are not necessarily ‘choice riders.’”
And along those lines, SEPTA, for instance, which provides transportation for Philadelphia, Delaware, Montgomery, Bucks and Chester counties, serves riders who are almost three-fourths from communities of color.
However, this is not only an economic and racial justice issue — it’s an environmental one.
"When you have a lot of public transit that definitely serves a lot of environmental justice communities, communities of color, low income worker communities that are already affected by negative air quality for so many reasons, let's do what we can to at least reduce the impact that transit and transportation has on air quality," said CVPA’s Blume.
While this disproportionately affects these environmental justice communities, it actually affects everyone. Indeed, Pennsylvania’s overall air quality is abysmal. The American Lung Association’s 2021 “State of the Air” report gives Allegheny, Bucks, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties an “F” grade in air quality for ozone pollution, while Berks, Chester, Delaware, and Northampton received a “D.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the transportation sector is responsible for about 29% of greenhouse gas emissions, while the U.S. Department of Transportation notes that single occupancy vehicles are the worst offender. This underscores why we still have a long way to go to expanding and popularizing public transit use.
"Addressing things like public transit and encouraging people to have public transit, expansions of public transit, solar panels on the roof of maintenance facilities, electric vehicle infrastructure, electric buses, those can really drive down the pollutants in the air,” added Blume.
While President Joe Biden's American Jobs Plan could potentially offer a one-time boost for public transportation (and also roads and bridges), we nevertheless need Harrisburg to address long-term regular capital improvement funding.
And economically, these improvements and potential expansions have a huge upside.
As CVPA Executive Director Joshua McNeil and Philadelphia and Vicinity Laborers’ District Business Manager Ryan Boyer pointed out in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star in August, SEPTA alone generates $2.3 billion in economic impact in Pennsylvania annually, supports 18,000 jobs, with more than 14 counties benefiting from SEPTA contracts.
They wrote that "investments in our public transit system is the ultimate job creation plan.” A plan that could provide union jobs that pay a living wage and benefits.
Regardless of political affiliation, who doesn’t want a plan to bolster the economy, create good-paying jobs, and protect the environment for everyone in the state? In the meantime, contact your state lawmakers and demand they pass forward-thinking, sustainable public transit funding now.
Cyril Mychalejko is a teacher and freelance writer from Bucks County.