Hire a Construction Worker, Fire a Bus Driver?

cta_bus_driver.jpgGreen-collar jobs are on the line in Barack Obama's adopted hometown. Photo of CTA bus driver: goatopolis/Flickr
It's stimulus package logic: Lay off a bus driver now and hire a construction worker in a couple of months or a year.

Congress and purported urbanist Barack Obama are fiddling with a 1950s-era stimulus package while America's transit systems burn. You name the city, and its transit system is falling off a financial cliff.  In Denver, Minneapolis, New York, and dozens of other large and small cities, revenue is plunging from the sales and real estate taxes that transit depends on. So despite big increases in transit ridership, many transit providers are cutting service and even laying off drivers. Yet not one cent from the $825 billion stimulus package would protect America's bus and subway riders from massive service cuts and fare hikes.

To transit riders, environmentalists and anyone concerned with social justice, the stimulus package is political cognitive dissonance on an epic scale. The vast majority of the nation's transit riders are low-income bus passengers, many of them African Americans in center cities -- the constituents that Obama ministered to as a community organizer on Chicago's South Side. Yet the proposed stimulus plan not only shortchanges public transit overall, it provides zero aid for day-to-day operations.

The stimulus is supposed to create jobs quickly. It calls for funding "shovel ready" projects, a standard that tends to discriminate against transit projects, and is absurd on its face. Transit operating funds can be spent quickly and easily, but it will take years to spend the billions in capital projects proposed in the latest version of the stimulus package:

  • $30 billion for highways
  • $31 billion to modernize federal and other public infrastructure for energy efficiency
  • $19 billion for clean water, flood control and environmental restoration
  • $9 billion for transit

It will take time for the economy and local government to digest and contract out billions in infrastructure spending. In contrast, local transit agencies can spend billions in stimulus aid quickly just by keeping existing bus and subway service operating. If the true intent of the stimulus is to inject money into the economy as quickly and efficiently as possible, and do so in an environmentally friendly and socially just manner, then transit operating assistance is an obvious choice.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune summed it up nicely in a recent editorial that quotes local transportation official Peter Bell: "I'm not sure how much sense it makes hiring a construction worker at the same time you're laying off a bus driver."