BY BRIDGETTE OUTTEN
It’s not exactly an uncommon scenario: federal lawmakers hashing out legislation on Capitol Hill hold up funding for essential services – while, in the meantime, local governments and citizens who would be affected wait with bated breath.
The time, all eyes are on House and Senate leaders who have been struggling recently to put together a new federal surface transportation program. A long-term program has been needed to fund the nation’s highway, bridge and transit since the original one expired in 2009, according to reports. A conference between 47 lawmakers began this month and lawmakers said Tuesday that negotiations are already past the “organizational stage.”
Resolution of how the nation’s transportation infrastructure is funded is especially important to cities with poorer populations who rely on public transportation – especially those dealing with local budget crunches. And whenever lawmakers do finish wrangling a feasible plan, it may be too late for some of them.
Pittsburgh shows a particularly extreme case. With a 35 percent cut in services by the Port Authority of Allegheny County looming by Sept. 2, the Transport Politic paints a stark picture of what the city’s current transportation routes and how the routes will look after the cuts.
“Pittsburgh, of course, is far from alone,” the Politic noted. “From Boston — where a 23 percent fare increase and service cuts were approved a month ago— to Athens, Georgia — where night bus service is expected to be fully eliminated — American cities continue to cut their transit offerings. Friday’s U.S. national jobs report, which showed about 20,000 fewer people working in transit operations in April compared to a year ago (a 5 percent decline), only reinforced the fact that when it comes to transit service, cuts are the rule of the game.”
But it appears the working poor are the ones losing the game. Recession is not the time to limit transportation options. In many cases, whether or not a person can secure a job is based on their ability to get to it. As cities expand and gentrification pushes poor people out of once affordable neighborhoods, those struggling to find affordable housing are stuck out in suburbs where there are fewer buses and even fewer trains.
A 2003 study published by the U.S. Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Statistics noted that there is a disparity in commuting expenses for the working poor.
“The working poor, those with an annual personal income less than $8,000, spent nearly 10 percent of their income on commuting expenses in 1999, more than twice the 4 percent figure for the total population,” the study noted.
And workers who had the added expenses of buying their own cars spent an even higher percentage on commuting than those who use public transit. Meanwhile, programs to assist the poor with purchasing cars are few and far between.
Now the wait lies with the hold up in Congress, but lawmakers said this week that a transportation conference that is underway is past the “organizational stage.”
“We’ve already had 20 hours of meetings, staff-to-staff,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and chair of the transportation conference, told reporters during what she promised will be weekly updates on the progress of the transportation funding negotiations, according to reports. “We’re working on the substance of the bill.”
Short-term bills in the interim have had mixed success, including a two-year $109 million bill that Boxer sponsored through the Senate. But a five-year, $260 billion version sponsored by Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. John Mica (R-FL) failed in the House, the Hill reported.