05/28/2010 01:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Transit Cuts an "Economic Heart Attack"

Last month in DC, thousands of transit workers gathered in protest of massive service and job cuts being made by transit agencies across the country. Speaking to the large crowd -which included local transit employees and workers from as far as New York, Atlanta and Boston - Reverend Jesse Jackson referred to the debilitating impact of these cuts as an "economic heart attack." One is hard-pressed to find a way more perfectly suited to describe them.

Public transportation is a lifeline to opportunity. It's what links people to jobs, students to schools, and families to grocery stores, hospitals and other essentials to live productive and healthy lives. And yet, at a time when transit ridership in our country has reached a record high the mobility of countless Americans has been stymied as transit agencies, confronted with sky-rocketing deficits, are forced to slash services, raise fares and lay-off hundreds of workers.

In more than 110 cities, public transit routes that residents depend on to get to work, shop, or take their children to school are at risk. According to the American Public Transportation Association, more than 80 percent of the nation's transit systems are considering or have recently enacted fare increases or service cuts.

In Atlanta, for example, nearly half of the 100,000 commuters who use MARTA to get to work each day say they don't have access to alternate transportation options. Residents of Cincinnati have been hit with a 12 percent reduction in service, a 25 cent fare increase, and 137 lost transit-sector jobs this year alone. And in New York City, two subway lines and 34 bus routes are expected to disappear by the end of June, while 600,000 students risk losing access to free or discounted transportation to and from school.

This is a community crisis--another dimension of how the recession is effecting everyday Americans. The impact of these hikes and cuts are creating further hardship for many people already struggling with mounting costs of housing, health-care, education, and other expenses. But for low-income people and communities of color hit first and worst by these harsh economic times, the effects are even more severe.

For many in these communities, public transit isn't just the best option - it's the only option. Today, our nation's poorest families are spending nearly a quarter of their annual household income on housing and commuting expenses, compared with just over 15 percent for other households. And while statistics show that low-income people are less likely to own personal vehicles, the poorest fifth of Americans spend nearly half of their annual household budget on automobile ownership - more than twice the national average.

For communities of color, these disparities are alarmingly more pronounced:

The good news is that we have an immediate opportunity to address the transit funding crisis. Just yesterday the U.S. Senate introduced legislation that, if passed, will provide much needed emergency operating aid to restore service cuts, keep fares affordable, and preserve transit jobs.

But our work is nowhere near finished. We must continue to push hard for changes that will provide everyone--regardless of income, age, disability or race-- with affordable transportation choices. At a time when where you live determines how you live, we must fight to ensure that poor communities in urban, rural and suburban areas across the country stay connected to quality jobs, schools, healthcare and other vital resources needed to live longer, happier and healthier lives.