By Alex Hudson
When the pandemic began and much of the world stopped moving, public transit carried on, connecting essential workers to jobs and people to food, health care, and other critical services. Bus drivers bravely continued working to get people where they needed to go, and adapted to help deliver food to seniors and patients to care. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a deep truth: public transit is, and always will be, essential.
There is worry that ridership is down now and won’t return. These fears are based on a return to pre-COVID levels of congestion and skyrocketing used car sales. But the risks of veering away from transit in a post-pandemic world are huge. If drivers get back in their cars exclusively, we’ll cut people off from opportunity and will be stuck in worse congestion than before, resulting in wasted time, more greenhouse gases and toxic pollutants that make our planet less livable, and hundreds of lives lost to preventable crashes.
The vision for public transit in a post-pandemic Puget Sound hasn’t changed: It must be fast, frequent, reliable and affordable. COVID-19 has simply underscored the urgency of addressing how we plan for and fund it. As we recover, the smart and most affordable investment we can make is in building a resilient and accessible public transit system that connects people to opportunities, creates good paying jobs, and supports our climate goals.
Here are three steps we can take to get there:
Invest in transit like it’s a key part of a just economic recovery—because it is. There can be no economic recovery without well-funded public transit. In Seattle, essential workers account for 33 percent of transit riders. These folks keep Seattle’s hospitals running, our grocery stores stocked, and provide social service, caretaking and education that all of us are depending on. In addition to getting people to their jobs, transit investments create good, green, family-wage jobs that last. An analysis of the 2009 stimulus package found that stimulus dollars spent on transit projects created more jobs than dollars spent building or maintaining highways. “To create the most jobs per dollar, invest in transit and maintenance,” the analysis concluded.
Transportation is a household’s second-highest cost, and the average household in King County spends more than $12,500 per year on their vehicles. In 2019, seven million Americans were at least three months behind on their car loans. As unemployment remains high and household finances are stretched to the breaking point, public transit is a desperately-needed affordable alternative to driving that millions of people across the country are counting on.
To keep our communities strong during this challenging economic climate, public transit must be centered in recovery plans and cannot be left out of the federal stimulus packages. All new COVID relief funding on the local, state, and federal levels must include investments for transit, teleliving, biking, walking, and rolling. To make sure this happens, we have to continue building strong coalitions across business, labor, environmental, and social justice advocates. We need everyone at the table.
Pay for it now, or pay the price later. Transit is a fundamental pillar of a functional economy, yet we have seen that the funding that keeps transit moving is fragile and overlooked at every level of government. TransitCenter estimates that across the country, transit agencies will see a $26 billion-$40 billion annual shortfall due to COVID. Declines in fare revenue, as well as the underlying supporting taxes, leave our agencies facing extreme budget shortfalls and elected leaders grappling with no easy choices.
Funding for transit in Washington has never been resilient or adequate. The 18th Amendment to our state Constitution restricts how we can spend transportation dollars. Rather than using gas tax money to create a more efficient and sustainable system overall, the state is forced to funnel money into highway projects, many of which only further pollution and congestion. This outdated restriction must be reconsidered—our social, economic and environmental future depends on it.
Washington lacks progressive revenue options for transit, and the passage of I-976 left local governments with even fewer tools. We need to move away from regressive, restrictive, and volatile sources of funding like the gas tax and replace them with sustainable and resilient funding options, like an equitably designed road user charge or congestion pricing and a statewide air quality surcharge. While working toward reform, we must continue to utilize the existing tools and support local transit ballot measures, starting by passing Seattle Proposition 1 and renewing the Seattle Transportation Benefit District, which funds transit investments in Seattle, for another six years.
Prioritize racial equity in our recovery plan and undue long standing disparities. The pandemic has exacerbated inequities that exist within and are caused by our transportation system. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) experience disproportionate impacts through exposure to air and noise pollution caused by racist planning decisions which built traffic arterials and highways in their communities, lowering home values, separating communities, and increasing exposure to air and noise pollution and preventable traffic violence. Health disparities caused by exposure to air pollution, such as higher rates of asthma, have left BIPOC communities more vulnerable to contracting COVID. Creating an equitable transportation system is literally a matter of life or death for BIPOC communities in Washington.
Across all transportation modes, the failure to show proof of payment, broken tail lights, jaywalking, and other minor traffic infractions are disproportionately enforced on communities of color, and too often lead to altercations with the police that end in violence or death. Historically, transit agencies have underinvested in these same communities, creating longer waits for buses and less reliable transit options.
Transit—made even safer through the quick work of agencies—has been a lifeline. King County Metro continues to deliver 150,000 rider trips every day, and that number keeps growing. It should come as no surprise that ridership is highest on routes that serve communities of color, who have long been the core of transit ridership in our region. The pandemic has shown that focusing on the riders who count on transit the most as we plan for recovery will result in a resilient transit system with a solid foundation that can adapt to changing needs as ridership and commute patterns shift.
To prioritize racial equity in transportation planning, we just need to put policy and intention into action. Our transit agencies must continue to act on building robust racial equity programs that lift up equitable engagement strategies (like Sound Transit’s Equitable Engagement Tool), develop racial equity tools to analyze policies (like the Puget Sound Regional Council’s Regional Equity Strategy), and create equity advisory boards where BIPOC voices have true impact on the policymaking (like Metro’s Equity Cabinet and Seattle’s Transportation Equity Workgroup). We need our state and regional government officials to center values of environmental justice, health, and safety when developing and selection transportation projects. TCC has developed such frameworks through our Transportation for All work.
At the same time, we must urgently address policing and enforcement within transportation. King County Executive Dow Constantine recently committed to reimagine fare enforcement on King County Metro, a meaningful step in the right direction. We advocate that Sound Transit, which will consider proposed fare enforcement reforms this fall following years of advocacy, take action as soon as possible. We must work to develop policies that make transportation safe, affordable, and accessible for BIPOC riders first.
The road ahead is bumpy, but we have a chance to rebuild a strong and robust transit system to keep our communities moving throughout the pandemic and beyond. Transit is an essential service to our society. Building and maintaining a transit system that delivers fast, frequent, affordable, climate-friendly, and reliable service that equitably connects people to opportunity is, and always should be, a priority.
Alex Hudson is the executive director of Transportation Choices Coalition. Read more about TCC’s just transportation recovery framework here.