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Statewide coalition demands Congress fund transit at same level as highways


(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

An unprecedented coalition of 40 political leaders and advocacy groups from across Oregon are calling on Congress to make a historic investment in public transit.

“Public transit is the foundation of our communities and the economy.”

Their statement, sent in a letter on Earth Day to seven members of Oregon’s congressional delegation, illustrates two important things about the current state of transportation politics: A growing confidence in progressive reforms (thanks to a sympathetic US Department of Transportation) that has led to unprecedented asks; and that work to create broad coalitions that transcend transportation is starting to pay off.

The letter aims to influence ongoing negotiations about a reauthorization of America’s transportation bill and said that while federal relief funding has staved off the worst of the pandemic’s impacts, the pre-Covid status quo for transit is not OK.

Here’s an excerpt:

“… Biden’s plan says, “This is no time to just build back to the way things were before, with the old economy’s structural weaknesses and inequalities still in place. This is the moment to imagine and build a new American economy for our families and the next generation.” Public transit is the foundation of our communities and the economy. It must also be the scaffolding for the new economy we create.”

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And here’s who signed onto the letter:

Not just the usual suspects. This coalition is almost as important as the letter itself.

The coalition’s case for transit is that it’s an economic engine, a “vehicle for racial equity”, and a way to reduce emissions from the transportation sector (the largest source of greenhouse gases in Oregon and the U.S.).

In the past, transportation advocacy groups have hoped for relatively small carve-outs of “highway bills” that have historically been heavily tilted toward highway expansion projects. This coalition reflects growing confidence nationwide that it’s time to equalize transit and highway funding. “We call on Congress to increase funding for transit to the same level as highways,” the letter states, “and to make necessary investments so that all Americans have access to high quality, safe, affordable, and reliable public transit service and transit-friendly communities.”

Beyond new transit infrastructure, they call on $20 billion in annual funding for operations and service, “to ensure the majority of Americans are within walking distance of frequent transit by 2030.” That date has added weight today because of Biden’s new commitment to halve America’s emissions by 2030.

The letter also calls for: annual investments of $12 billion for capital projects and $18 billion for maintenance, new requirements of zero emission transit fleets, more funding for bicycling and walking facilities that connect people to transit stops and stations, $7 billion for transit-oriented development (TOD), more accessibility for people with disabilities, and better pay and benefits for transit workers.

In related news, Portland Congressman Earl Blumenauer told Willamette Week on April 10th that any new expansion of I-5 between Portland and Vancouver must include light rail. His comments were quickly controversial in Clark County where some elected officials bristled at Blumenauer’s stance.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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