May 2017Policy

Transit as a core of community success

The week between the March for Science on April 22 and the People's Climate March on April 29, "Science for the People" organized a series of forums and discussions throughout Washington DC to heighten awareness of the connection between climate justice and social justice.  Community Lens: Public Transit was amongst these highlighting the fact that transportation is an environmental concern -- for enabling people to move around from place to place without dependence on cars has an impact on the air we breathe, on the carbon emissions causing global warming.  A rapid transit/bus oriented development as distinct from urban sprawl is also an urban planning concern -- for how we get around within an urban/suburban environment is not only a question of transportation but also a matter of housing and jobs, a matter of recreation and shopping venues.  Which is another way of saying transportation impacts us as workers, as riders, as community members; that how transportation is organized reflects and reinforces class divides and patterns of racial discrimination.

All of these issues were addressed at the April 25 Community Lens: Public Transit panel held at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church, which examined the crisis facing our Metro system and the impact of WMATA proposals which seek to "solve" the problem on the backs of transit workers and riders in a manner that will strengthen gentrification and ultimately only lead to further dependence on cars.  Speaking to these concerns were four panelists:  Zuri Teshiera, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689; Ben Ross, Action Committee for Transit; Claudia Barragan, Environmental Justice Committee, DC Sierra Club; David Schwartzman: DC Statehood Green Party (and the DSA Environmental Justice Committee among other organizations) who brought their respective areas of expertise into an exploration of Metro's problems and on how to organize for an alternative -- a public transportation system that is safe, reliable, affordable, and reduces the impact of climate change.

One key step in that direction is a call for dedicated funding, with that funding (unlike in proposals by WMATA and business-friendly representatives) based on a form of progressive taxation.  While the nature of that taxation can take several forms, as per various suggestions by panelists, they rejected the notion that our local governments can't find the funds to maintain let alone improve Metro.  Such claims ignore tax giveaways to business interests and developers and ignore the truth that money is generally found for highway construction often at a cost much greater than the need served.  Yet the unmet need for more public transit, transit that addresses the massive displacement caused by gentrification, has grown.

Cuts in bus service and increased Metro fares, alongside the system's unreliability, have turned many to solutions that compound the problem.  This is evident in the growth of Uber and other auto-based transit which increases costs, both environmental and social.  And bike lanes (which are environmentally friendly) nevertheless do not address the needs of families, of the elderly, of the very young, of the disabled, of those who work at odd hours or long distances.  Both Uber and bikes represent private answers to social needs -- and so each also ignores the need of workers.  Contrary to WMATA's proposals, transit workers are not to blame for the system's failure and should not be sacrificed in the name of solvency.  Union members have negotiated the benefits they have and work to make the system safe and reliable.  ATU Local 689 is putting forward proposals to rebuild Metro based on a community of interests between workers and riders.  The attack on transit workers and the lack of any vision or program of an expanded, affordable transit system are aspects of class warfare amongst working people that is the other side of unbridled, unproductive growth that is destroying our environment.

The panel was moderated by Sigute Meilus, executive director of Americans for Transit -- a labor-supported non-profit that will take up these issues by organizing riders and community members to work with unionists on behalf of a system that meets the needs of people throughout our region as opposed to those who seek cutbacks and privatization that will benefit the wealthy at the expense of all.  The panel discussion was a further step in a campaign that will only become stronger in the months ahead.

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