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Finally, Congress is getting real about funding transit

Would it make sense to build schools but not pay teachers to fill them? No, of course not. But that is basically what Congress has been doing to public transit for years.

For decades, the federal government has supported the cost of operating aviation through air traffic control and the cost of shipping through investment in ports and the management of locks and dams in the inland waterways. These are essential services for the movement of goods and people. Operating high-quality transit is just as essential to get people to employment and to give businesses access to talent and customers. And it is time for Washington to treat it as such.

For far too long, policymakers in Washington have prioritized highways and cars over public transit. This has devastating impacts not only for the climate crisis but on the budgets of local transit agencies and the communities they serve.

A new piece of legislation introduced last month by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) from the Atlanta area will change that. The bill, Stronger Communities through Better Transit Act will provide high-quality transit to communities across the country.

In short, finally Congress is getting real about funding transit.

While Congress has taken vital steps in recent years to fund transit, including the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the fact of the matter is that the lack of congressional action on operations funding, which this latest bill would provide, has led to critical funding shortfalls at numerous transit agencies and has left many in fiscal trouble.

Enter Johnson’s bill. The vital piece of legislation will create a new formula grant program available to all transit agencies to increase service frequency and dependability so that people don’t have to wait so long for the bus, to provide additional hours of service so that those who don’t work white-collar hours can still get to their jobs; and to add new, frequent service to underserved communities.

The truth of the matter is that transit is a driver of economic growth, jobs, and opportunity for many residents. Tens of millions of people in the U.S.—from small rural towns to major urban centers—rely on public transit to get to work every day, generating trillions of dollars in economic activity. Every dollar invested in transit offers a 5-to-1 return, and every $1 billion invested in public transit produces 50,000 jobs. Transit agencies are often among the largest employers in their cities.

The COVID-19 pandemic and recovery forever changed how our communities function, work, socialize and commute. It also dramatically showed that public transit is essential to our community, local economy, and the lives of millions of people across the country. Essential workers depend on and operate transit, small businesses depend on transit, and historically marginalized communities depend on transit. Transit is a key component of economic recovery and a more environmentally sustainable society, and it’s a road to equity for disconnected communities—rural, urban and suburban.

We also know the climate crisis is not coming; it is here now. And it’s getting worse by the day. We’ve seen it all around us on a near daily basis. It is impacting our economy and nearly every aspect of our daily lives. Investing in public transit is one of the top ways we can help address the climate crisis on the scale that is needed.

In other words, an investment in transit by policymakers would be a win-win. A win economically and a win in our efforts to address the climate crisis.

And it is far past time for Washington to ensure that public transit does not just recover from COVID but expands to create more sustainable and prosperous communities.

LeeAnn Hall is director of the National Campaign for Transit Justice, which works to ensure Congress invests in public transit.

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