The covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the economic and environmental inequities that plague Pittsburgh, and a strong public transit system will be necessary to get those impacted back to work and jump-start the economy when conditions are safe.
With the Trump administration’s response to covid-19 a complete disaster — characterized by ignoring science and leaving the states to their own devices — our state and local leadership have an even bigger role to play to get our economy moving again.
Keeping our transit systems running effectively will be a critical part of a successful reopening that addresses longstanding inequities highlighted by the pandemic. Harrisburg must step up and provide a long-term funding fix for mass transit if we are to rebuild our economy — not only financially, but in a more equitable and sustainable manner that keeps us from adding to the twin crises of air pollution and climate change.
Even though Black people make up 13% of Allegheny County’s population, they represent 26% of total covid-19 cases and nearly a third of hospitalizations and ICU admissions. And, according to data released by the Allegheny County Health Department, they also represent a disproportionate share of deaths from covid-19, as well as from diseases caused by bad air, like asthma and lung cancer.
This is why SEIU Local 32BJ, which represents nearly 7,000 essential workers across Southwestern Pennsylvania, has been on the front lines demanding employers implement safety measures and provide adequate supplies of personal protective equipment, like masks.
More Black and Latino people have lost their jobs in the pandemic than their white counterparts, and more are struggling to pay their bills, according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center.
People of color in service-sector jobs are also disproportionately likely to need public transit to get to work.
Before the pandemic hit, the Port Authority of Allegheny County helped more than 200,000 people every weekday to work. And during the pandemic, it has continued to operate, ensuring that essential workers have been able to keep our community safe.
But covid-19 has also put a massive strain on the Port Authority and other transit agencies across Pennsylvania. Ridership has plummeted because of work-from-home and social distancing requirements, even as cleaning costs have gone up. All told, the agency is predicting losses of at least $30 million because of the pandemic.
And though Pennsylvania’s transit agencies received funding from the federal CARES Act, Congress didn’t expect the crisis to last this long.
Taken together, the pandemic’s impacts on state and local finances are accelerating a looming fiscal cliff that threatens to bring the Port Authority back to the bad old days of persistent budget problems and threatened service cuts.
If that happens, it would cripple any hope Pittsburgh has for a financial recovery, deepen racial and class-based impacts of the pandemic and be a major blow to our air quality.
Cuts in transit service would make it more difficult for working people to get to their jobs and cause cars to flood the roads. More traffic also means more air pollution and smog — which exacerbate asthma and other respiratory diseases that also worsen outcomes for covid-19.
It would also erase years of gains that the Port Authority and other transit agencies made under Act 89, a landmark transportation funding law that was passed on a strong bipartisan basis in 2013.
Unfortunately, key components of Act 89 are set to sunset in 2022. This makes it much more difficult for the Port Authority to carry out ambitious plans currently being studied to improve service, like expanding transit access to Pittsburgh International Airport or extending the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway to areas like Monroeville.
A strong Port Authority is crucial in the fight against climate change and is key to reducing emissions from the transportation sector, which is the single largest source of carbon pollution. And it is essential to connect working families to their jobs.
We know that elected officials both locally in Southwestern Pennsylvania and in Harrisburg have a lot of work to do to address the long-term economic harms caused by the pandemic, particularly among low-income communities and families of color. Public transit must be included in any government response designed to respond to this crisis.
We need to build back our economy in ways that expand opportunities for working class people to get access to good jobs and that respond to the existential threat posed by climate change. Funding our transit systems does just that.
Josh McNeil is executive director of Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania. Sam Williamson is Western Pennsylvania district leader for SEIU Local 32BJ.