Public Transportation Funding: Who Pays, Who Benefits and What's the Impact on Low-Income and Communities of Color?
Date: November 20th, 2013 5:30 - 7:30 (PST)
Location: East Bay Community Foundation, Oakland, CA
Photo Gallery: http://www.flickr.com/photos/105440298@N06/sets/72157638055409563/
Peter Cohen, Co-Director, Council of Community Housing Organizations (CCHO)
Alicia Garza, Executive Director, POWER
Moderator: Bob Allen, Acting Executive Director, Urban Habitat
Manuel Esteva is a San Franciso resident and mother of three; a child care worker, and a member of the community organization POWER. She joined POWER three years ago after hearing a presentation at her church. She was interviewed in the studio of Radio RP&E.
Clarke: Tell us why you are interested in climate change. Why does POWER connect transit and climate?
Esteva: (Tr.) The connection really started [with] the campaign for young people to be able to travel around the city without having to pay.
We started realizing that not only would this benefit youth, but we could also [help] the environment.
A lot more natural disasters are affecting people in cities, like the one that just hit New York. And this is caused by global warming. What cities like ours can do is take these small steps that, over time, can have a large impact on the climate.
San Francisco is a small city that can have a national and global impact. It’s a city that sees itself as a green city, always trying to make strides in terms of community health. We can serve as an example to other cities when we create policies that eliminate dependence on cars.
We know that cars create 20-percent of the pollution in the city. When public transit is made accessible, people use it more. So we can achieve big things when we create [these] policies.
In spite of rising gas prices, worsening traffic, and growing public concern about climate change, voters in two of the largest and most diverse counties in the state rejected transportation tax measures (Measures J and B1) that promised to meet these important transportation needs. Yet, these same voters, only four years earlier, in the case of Los Angeles County, and 12 years before, in the case of Alameda County, approved similar measures (Measures R and B) with strong support. What has changed in that time and what does this mean for transit-dependent communities and their transportation justice allies?
Alameda County’s Measure B1, promoted by Urban Habitat and many of its allies, included many important benefits for low-income bus riders. These were critical funds to improve bus service and restore cuts in service, provide seed money for a county-wide free student bus pass program, make major investments in bicycle lane and sidewalk safety, as well as provide more money for paratransit for seniors and people with disabilities. For this reason, B1 didn’t face the same grassroots opposition that Measure J did.
Like Measure J, B1 was a sales tax measure that would have continued to shift the transportation tax burden onto working families and away from corporations and wealthy individuals. (This is one of the main reasons why, after much debate, Urban Habitat ultimately decided not to endorse the final B1 measure. We were also concerned that the tax would become permanent and that it lacked protections against gentrification and the displacement of low-income renters from neighborhoods well-served by transit.)
The bid by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to extend an existing transportation sales tax until 2069 failed to meet the necessary 2/3 threshold, delivering a setback to the Mayor's gentrifying and polluting vision for transportation expansion.
Sunyoung Yang, an organizer with the LA Bus Riders Union, which opposed the measure says, “Despite a multimillion dollar corporate-funded ad blitz and misleading ballot language, substantial numbers of voters heard our message about Measure J.”
The Coalition to Defeat Measure J hailed the result not as a defeat for mass transit progress, but as a rejection of MTA's pattern of running roughshod over civil rights, environmental justice, and community concerns in favor of corporate special interests.
Yang explains: “This is not a denial of funds for the MTA. This result forces a shift in the debate on how to redistribute the ample funds from Measure R that MTA already has, with racial equality, social justice, and good transit policy for all at the core.“
Low-income youth of San Francisco will be able to ride Muni for free during a 16-month trial period starting early next year, thanks to the efforts of a broad community coalition. After a two-year campaign, the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) gave final approval for the funding on December 4, 2012. Campaign organizers want the program to begin in February, with a massive drive to sign up youth for free passes fully underway by March.
In November 2011, the coalition won crucial support when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors lent its support to the campaign. Spirited actions by youth, parents, and community advocates through 2011 had been aimed at winning relief for students and their families from the rising cost of bus and light rail fares following school district cuts to funding for yellow school buses.
James Hill has worked at the same St. Louis, Missouri establishment for over 20 years. And for 20 years, he has been advocating for a bus system that better accommodates his wheelchair. He acknowledges the major improvements to public transit since the early 1980s when he faced incredible discrimination but believes the system still has a long way to go.
“Metro drivers didn’t want to pick up disabled persons,” he recalls. “They’d leave wheelchair [users] sitting at bus stops, or if they did stop, the wheelchair lifts didn’t work.”
Nowadays there are working wheelchair lifts on every running bus in St. Louis, but Hill knows that the fight is far from over. To get to work, he must travel in his wheelchair to the closest bus line, nearly a mile from his home. While the $30,000 electric wheelchair makes this possible, the journey along sidewalks and streets can feel quite hazardous in bad weather and insurance is not forthcoming when it comes to paying for repairs. Still, the wheelchair and the bus line, which drops Hill within a block of his place of work, constitute a lifeline to freedom. Hill has many wheelchair-bound friends who have to make at least one transfer, if not two, to get to their places of employment.
For the first time in its history, San Francisco youth will be able to travel to and from school, work, after-school programs and other activities throughout the city for free.
A vote by the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency board (SFMTA) on Wednesday to approve the Free Muni for Low-Income Youth means that the cost of public transit no longer will be a barrier to opportunity for young people in San Francisco.
For the past two years, youth and transit advocates tirelessly fought to transform the free Muni program from an idea into a reality.
B1’s incredibly narrow loss is bittersweet for us at Urban Habitat, who had worked incredibly hard to make sure it would improve transit for Alameda County’s low-income and working-class residents.
Measure B1 included many important benefits to the county’s transportation system and, particularly its most vulnerable residents — in the form of funds for restoring AC Transit service, improving paratransit for the elderly and disabled, new bike lanes and sidewalks, and seed funding for a countywide Free Student Bus Pass program. These are all funds badly needed to put Alameda County on a path toward more sustainable and equitable transportation modes.
The funds in B1 would have enabled AC Transit to add back bus lines that had been cut, expand evening and weekend service, and make buses run more frequently and more on-time. Without B1, AC Transit may need to cut further from its already skeletal service, and it will definitely try to push another fare hike on its already-taxed riders.
Excerpt from an Interview with Ya-Ting Liu
Ya-Ting Liu (transalt.org) is a federal advocate for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and also the campaign manager for Rider Rebellion at Transportation Alternatives.
My family moved here from Taiwan when I was seven years old. We couldn’t afford a car. The bus was our only way to get around and we used it for everything. Public transit is a vital service that connects people to opportunity and allows for social and economic mobility. It’s just as important as education, health care and jobs. Rural, suburban communities also depend on transit and when bus service is cut, folks are literally stranded without any other way to get to work.
We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For
Activistas from the New Majority
At the Empowering Women of Color conference in March this year, I was moved to hear Grace Lee Boggs, in an open dialogue with Angela Davis, say that we must re-imagine everything; change how we think, what we do, to re-invent our society and institutions in order for revolution to happen. And as I listened to female MC and rapper Rocky Rivera give short glimpses into the revolutionary lives of three iconic women activists—Gabriela Silang, Dolores Huerta, and Angela Davis—in the 16 bars of “Heart,” I wondered who would be our next movement builders.