On Wednesday, Fight For A Fair Transportation Bill

Isaiah J. Poole

It’s about time for us to break into the closed-door negotiations in Congress over a surface transportation bill.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is asking people on Wednesday to call their members of Congress to support “transportation equity” in the transportation bill, which will fund highway and public transportation projects for the next two years. The Leadership Conference has in mind some specific concerns affecting urban and low-income populations, but everyone concerned about making the economy work again for working-class and middle-class people has a reason to make their voice heard. This bill is too important to be left to the lobbyists who have access to the members and staffers huddled in a House-Senate conference committee.

The Leadership Conference is specifically concerned about protecting language in the Senate version of the bill that would require the federal government to continue technical assistance programs and studies related to public transportation and its accessibility to low-income people and people of color. The importance of public transportation, of course, transcends race and class—the more people use public transportation, the less clogged and the less polluted our roads are, and the less fuel we’re consuming.

And just this week, the American Public Transportation Association released a report that estimated that riders would be making an additional 200 million new trips on buses and rail systems this year as gas prices fluctuate. That reports cites evidence that many riders who start taking buses or rail when gas prices spike keep on doing so when gas prices fall, as they are now.

House Republicans, however, almost got away with ditching dedicated federal funding for public transportation altogether. (Federal assistance is used for capital expenses; operating expenses are covered by a combination of fares and state and local subsidies.) They backed off in the wake of complaints from state- and local-level Republicans, but conservative ideological disdain for federal public transportation support remains on the record.

Another critical concern in the Leadership Conference call to action is preserving “community involvement in local transportation planning and decision making.” The transportation bill passed by House Republicans removes the speed humps and stop signs from transportation project reviews that today allow communities to mitigate the adverse environmental or economic effects of these projects. The House bill puts strict, short limits on even multibillion-dollar projects, constraining the ability of citizens to investigate and build a case against a transportation plan that would harm a particular community or ecosystem in its path.

In the name of allegedly reducing the costs of environmental reviews, House conservatives would allow overzealous transportation projects and greedy lobbyists to steamroll communities, imposing high costs on the safety and well-being of affected people and communities. The nation’s landscape is already littered with transportation projects done wrong, without thought to how a highway route would destroy the economic viability of a community or the ecological balance of a wilderness area. Fixing this damage after the fact is extraordinarily costly, if it happens at all. Yet the House bill won’t allow careful consideration of the effects of highway and transit projects before they are built.

It’s important to say to members of Congress that it’s worth a few extra dollars and a few extra weeks to consider the long-term concerns of the public whose taxes are paying for these projects and the people who will have to live with the consequences.

There are two more reasons to call or write your member of Congress on Wednesday about the transportation bill.

First, tell them to take the Keystone XL pipeline out of the bill. Today’s report from the National Resources Defense Council that the Keystone pipeline would actually increase gasoline prices is just one more reason to push back against the right-wing insistence that this pipeline be jammed down our collective throats. Conservatives have been consistently telling falsehoods about the Keystone XL pipeline: It will not create a significant number of jobs. It will not increase domestic gasoline supplies. It will not decrease prices.

Second, this bill is likely to be the most significant action the Congress will take before the election to keep the economy buoyed and produce jobs. And we need to be putting people to work now. Even though this bill is meager, it is still essential. And we cannot allow small-minded, small-government conservatives to get in the way.

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