Our current pandemic should be a situation where we maintain or increase public transit funding, rather than cut it. Fewer people are indeed riding the MAX or bus, which was a good thing in the short term given the need for physical distancing and self-isolation measures to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic — but there’s still a group of people for which public transportation is a lifeline: essential workers. With over 36% of public transit riders working jobs classified as “essential”, it’s clear that the greater Portland region must create solutions that support essential workers and robust multimodal transportation options, rather than hinder them.
Essential workers in the Portland metro area rely on public transit to get to work, where many have been putting their lives on the line to save ours — some are doing it for barely above minimum wage, and certainly not a living wage. Certified nursing assistants make an average of $16.02 an hour in Portland and custodians make an average of $14.64 an hour; just two of the many essential jobs that continued during the stay at home order. Factoring in costs of living, these wages make owning a car out of reach, so other transportation options are vital.
It’s too easy right now to make arguments against transit because of concerns about spreading COVID-19. However, as we’ve seen in over the past months, precautions can and are being taken to stop the spread; more importantly, for transit-dependent riders there is no other choice, and transit must continue to be a reliable source of transportation.
Considering the prevalence of poverty in the area — 34% of people in Multnomah County are “below self-sufficiency standard” — and the criticality of the region’s public transportation system to other forms of infrastructure: healthcare and food systems to name two.
Both buses and MAX trains intersect with many of the region’s largest healthcare facilities. They also ferry grocery workers to and from work and allow those without easy access to a grocery store the ability to eat. The life hacks for social distancing some of us have been able to take for granted aren’t accessible to all: Many do not have extra money to invest in grocery delivery or ridesharing services.
The way to assuage concerns over the safety of public transit is by investing more, in order to serve riders reliably and provide enough space for physical distancing, rather than making deep service cuts.
Cutting service during a pandemic is an obvious response if the agency is only trying to balance a budget. From a policy standpoint, fewer riders means fewer buses, and longer wait times between trains or buses should be tolerable. In the short term, possibly, but the long term damage is irreparable, and damage the health and economic development of our region – as the service cuts after the Great Recession demonstrated. Slashing transit funding puts riders and operators at more risk; instead, TriMet should be investing in processes that allow for more-frequent bus and train service — and therefore the ability for riders to spread out more — and extreme disinfection and safety measures,.
Leaders and public agencies have a job right now that nobody envies — having to make tough decisions as they’re faced with declining tax revenues and an uncertain future. But, they can’t forget that the people who depend on public transit infrastructure need support now more than ever.
Making and retaining service reductions now could result in a system that never recovers — reinforcing a system of inequities for the transit-dependent, youth, the elderly, low-income communities, and communities of color. This is an especially big deal when the long term effects of coronavirus are expected to create severe economic paralysis of already-struggling neighborhoods. Furthermore, a less robust and reliable public transit system inevitably means more carbon emissions from single-occupancy vehicles. For a more equitable, climate-friendly, healthy, and economically-thriving region, we all must advocate to sustain and support a robust, multi-modal transit system.
Two ways to take action now:
- Stand with our partners PAALF and Unite Oregon to DEFUND local police, REINVEST in Black futures, and PROTECT our communities from violence.
- Attend a TriMet Virtual Budget Open House and the June 24 TriMet Board Meeting, and ask them to restore service cuts and redirect funding away from transit police and fare enforcement.