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Congress: This Year, Protect Our Mass Transit

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In 1980, an organization convened and voted to include the following in its platform:

...Many urban centers of our nation need dependable and affordable mass transit systems... The role of the federal government should be one of giving financial and technical support... a consistent and dependable source of revenue should be established. Mass transportation offers the prospect for significant energy conservation... it is vital that adequate public and private transportation facilities be provided.

Is this the manifesto of a grassroots group like Transportation Alternatives? The Sierra Club? One of the transit worker labor unions? The Socialist Party?

No, it is the 1980 Republican Party Platform. Conservative darling Ronald Reagan was elected president with public transportation funding among his campaign promises. In fact, Reagan arguably fulfilled this promise when in 1983 he spearheaded creation of the Mass Transit Account, which provides a lockbox of funds for public transit within the greater Highway Trust Fund.

However, today we have a new generation of Republicans who will invoke Reagan at the drop of a hat, yet want to eviscerate mass transit funding. In the past few years the Republicans in Congress repeatedly tried to slash the funding. In 2012, the House GOP even introduced a bill to eliminate the very Mass Transit Account created by their idol.

Although Americans have been saved from the most brutal proposed cuts to mass transit funding, nevertheless public transit is under attack. Recently, Congress quietly let the public transit tax credit for commuters plummet from $245 a month to $130, while increasing it for parking. In another major blow, New Jersey governor Chris Christie showed off his conservative credentials for 2016 by canceling Access to the Region's Core, a commuter rail project that would expedite trips from New Jersey to New York. Although $600 million had already been spent, Christie claimed he was canceling it because hypothetically there might be a cost overrun, without a shred of proof to back him up.

Once again, this year we face a critical juncture in the fight to preserve public transit funding. Congress must pass a 2014 transportation bill in order to continue funding the Highway Trust Fund. Without this, the HTF will start "bouncing checks" as soon as August, according to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. Given this crisis facing public transportation, we must ensure that Congress passes a 2014 transportation bill that adequately funds mass transit in this country. President Obama is proposing a respectable $302 billion in transit funding over four years, of which $72 billion would be for mass transit. However, House Ways and Means chair Rep. David Camp has proposed a transit bill less than half that amount, with only $126.5 billion in total.

With tens of billions of dollars on the line, we must all do whatever it takes to ensure mass transit gets a decent amount of funding this year. Public transportation serves a vital role in improving everyone's quality of life. In particular, it is a crucial service for America's lower class, which is disproportionately people of color. It is also a fundamental necessity for cities, where four out of five Americans live.

Mass transit is more than just a nice little extra for getting around: It is a civil right. Public transportation affords everyone the freedom of movement, including access to things like health care, affordable housing and education. It also serves as an engine of economic growth, giving people a chance to achieve a better standard of living. And it makes for cleaner air so that people have the freedom to breathe without becoming sick.

In places like my hometown of New York City, affordable public transportation is so vital that it could literally be a matter of life and death for folks living in poverty. The costs to own or lease an automobile are simply too high for many New Yorkers: On top of the price of an automobile, there are the high costs of gas, maintenance and parking (a precious commodity in New York). The American Public Transportation Association estimates that the average New Yorker saves about $15,000 annually by using a 30-day Metrocard instead of an automobile. For New York's lower class, $15,000 could be the difference between paying the rent and living on the street; between putting food on the table and going hungry. The cost savings even extend to people who use automobiles, such as people unable to use mass transit taking paratransit, because fewer vehicles on the road allow them to go faster and use gas more efficiently.

The economic development from mass transit is also tremendous. For one, public transit workers in America are typically represented by a labor union. This means workers have an advocate who will ensure they have decent wages, benefits and safe working conditions. This is on top of the jobs created by construction of infrastructure, which also frequently enlists union workers. For less privileged individuals without a high-priced education on their résumés, a quality union job is one of the few avenues out of poverty available to them.

Constructing and operating mass transit is only the start of the economic benefits. Transit infrastructure gives people greater mobility across longer distances, allowing people more flexibility in where to live and work. Affordable transit means people can move beyond densely populated urban areas, relieving overcrowding and lowering rents when there is less demand. An easier commute for workers also means employers have a bigger talent pool from which to hire and more flexibility in where to operate, such as building a manufacturing plant where the land is cheaper. Other transit infrastructure -- like roads, railways, ports and airports -- can lower the cost of transporting products, with the savings passed on to the consumer. Transit infrastructure's contribution to our economy is so great that a 2013 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that, unless we get serious about building infrastructure, insufficient surface transportation will cost Americans 900,000 jobs and $900 billion in GDP by 2020.

Public transportation is also an effective tool in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and combating the devastating effects of climate change. People taking public transportation instead of driving means fewer cars on the road. And as we mentioned above, fewer cars on the road makes automobiles more fuel efficient. Plus, public transit vehicles are more likely to run on alternative fuels that create less air pollution. The issue of air quality is especially important to me because it literally hits close to home: I live with my wife and young son in Harlem, which has one of the highest asthma rates in the country. And I don't want my son to become a statistic.

Moreover, in the battle to protect funding of the status quo in mass transit, we cannot forget about the urgent need to build new infrastructure. The existing public transit infrastructure in the United States is, simply put, pathetic. When it comes to high speed rail, we are decades behind other countries: South Korea, France, Japan and China all have trains capable of reaching speeds of over 260 mph. A train that fast in America could go from New York City to Washington, D.C. in about an hour. Acela, currently the fastest train in the country, can only reach 150 mph and on actual trips averages about 70 mph, in part because it must use the same rails as other trains.

America's transit infrastructure even lags behind that of third world countries. According to a recent "Future of Urban Mobility" report ranking the world's public transit systems, not a single U.S. city ranked above "average." New York City was the highest in the country at a dismal 35th place, behind such cities as Calcutta, Istanbul and Bogota. Even more shameful is Atlanta, whose transit system should be a vital service to the large lower class and black population, yet came in 82nd place, behind Lahore, Tehran, Addis Ababa and Ho Chi Minh City.

We are making some progress, with $8 billion for high-speed rail included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the "Stimulus Bill"), but we are still far away from having world class transit infrastructure. President Obama's proposal of $300 billion in funding is encouraging, but estimates find it will cost in the trillions just to maintain the existing infrastructure.

This year, there is a lot on the line if we do not pressure congress to pass a decent transportation bill that funds public transit, both the systems themselves and roads that carry buses. We must protect our transit, instead of succumbing to conservative grandstanding.

When it comes to public transportation in America, we literally and figuratively have a long way to go. Congress must take notice and hear our voice.