As “Transportation Cliff” Nears, Unions Rally for Public Transit

Cole Stangler

With the Highway Trust Fund depleted and the federal transportation funding law near expiration, America's transportation infrastructure hangs in the balance.

From the debt-ceil­ing show­down to the fis­cal cliff” to the gov­ern­ment shut­down of 2013, self-induced bud­get crises have become some­thing of a hall­mark of today’s Con­gress. In keep­ing with that tra­di­tion, Wash­ing­ton is now rapid­ly approach­ing the trans­porta­tion cliff.”

In Octo­ber, the nation’s two-year trans­porta­tion fund­ing law will expire. That means the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment won’t be allowed to finance upkeep of fed­er­al high­ways and bridges beyond what’s allo­cat­ed before the dead­line, or to award grants to states for new pub­lic tran­sit projects like the expan­sion of Dal­las’ light rail sys­tem.

Even before that, in late August, the fed­er­al High­way Trust Fund, which is the main source of mon­ey for these projects, is pro­ject­ed to go broke. Thou­sands of tran­sit projects across the coun­try will grind to a halt and 700,000 con­struc­tion jobs will be put at risk, accord­ing to the White House.

As the squeeze nears, the Amal­ga­mat­ed Tran­sit Union (ATU) and Trans­port Work­ers Union of Amer­i­ca (TWU), whose mem­bers include pub­lic-tran­sit oper­a­tors and main­te­nance work­ers, are call­ing on Con­gress to get its act togeth­er. But they want more than a bare-bones bill. On Tues­day, hun­dreds of ATU and TWU mem­bers ral­lied at a park across the street from the Capi­tol Build­ing, demand­ing that leg­is­la­tors expand fed­er­al invest­ment in pub­lic transit.

We need a long-term mass tran­sit high­way reau­tho­riza­tion bill, one that has real mon­ey to finance America’s infra­struc­ture, high­ways, bridges, mass tran­sit sys­tems, so we don’t sink into a Third World in terms of mobil­i­ty for tens of mil­lions of peo­ple every day,” says Har­ry Lom­bar­do, pres­i­dent of TWU. Two years ago, instead of com­ing up with a com­pre­hen­sive pro­gram and financ­ing it to rebuild the infra­struc­ture of Amer­i­ca and expand mass tran­sit or at least main­tain it as we know it, they kicked the can down the road.”

Well-fund­ed pub­lic tran­sit, unions and their sup­port­ers say, is good for work­ers, rid­ers and the envi­ron­ment. It is one of those issues that is a true win-win in every regard,” Jer­sey City May­or Steven Fulop said at the rally.

But in order to invest more, the gov­ern­ment needs more rev­enue. That’s why the ATU and TWU back leg­is­la­tion spon­sored by Rep. Earl Blu­me­nauer (D‑Ore.) that would dou­ble the gas tax from 15 cents per gal­lon to 33.4 per cents per gal­lon. The cur­rent tax rate has stayed the same since 1993 — the main rea­son for the High­way Trust Fund’s shod­dy state.

Right now, America’s run­ning on fumes with its infra­struc­ture,” Blu­me­nauer said at the ral­ly. We real­ly do need to raise the gas tax to give you the bill that you need and to avoid a food fight between tran­sit and truck­ers and between red states and blue states. Put the mon­ey on the table; every­body can be satisfied.”

Lar­ry Han­ley, pres­i­dent of ATU, says a tax hike isn’t as con­tro­ver­sial as it sounds.

Peo­ple don’t under­stand that they’re pay­ing half today of what they did [20] years ago, per mile in gas tax­es, because the gas tax­es remained sta­t­ic [while] the amount of miles per gal­lon has gone up,” Han­ley tells In These Times. I think that if peo­ple take the time to explain that some­thing has to be done to sup­port our bridges, our roads and our tran­sit, then the peo­ple will accept it. …The idea that the Unit­ed States Con­gress can’t act and increase the tax to fund all these impor­tant pro­grams is ridiculous.”

The AFL-CIO and Cham­ber of Com­merce both back such a mea­sure. And with the prospect of fed­er­al tran­sit grants dry­ing up, a num­ber of states have already moved to increase their own fuel taxes.

The admin­is­tra­tion, how­ev­er, has expressed oppo­si­tion to a fed­er­al gas-tax hike. Instead the White House wants to gen­er­ate rev­enue through a tem­po­rary cor­po­rate tax reform pro­pos­al. Lar­ry Han­ley says the ATU is open to addi­tion­al means of rais­ing rev­enue for tran­sit projects, but says there’s no rea­son why any such mea­sure needs to be temporary.

Blu­me­nauer wasn’t the only mem­ber of Con­gress to make the one-block jour­ney across Con­sti­tu­tion Avenue. Sen­a­tor Sher­rod Brown (D‑Ohio) and rep­re­sen­ta­tives Mar­cia Fudge (D‑Ohio) and Alan Grayson (D‑Fla.) also spoke at the rally.

So too did Rev­erend Al Sharp­ton, who con­nect­ed pub­lic tran­sit fund­ing to the civ­il rights struggle.

Not­ing that poor peo­ple and peo­ple of col­or are more depen­dent on pub­lic tran­sit than oth­er Amer­i­cans, Sharp­ton told the crowd of trade union­ists, Labor rights for tran­sit work­ers is civ­il rights for Amer­i­can peo­ple. …. When you cut off tran­sit work­ers, you cut off the legs of peo­ple that live in the bot­tom 99 per­cent of this coun­try, and we are not going to let you stand by and scape­goat tran­sit work­ers to immo­bi­lize Amer­i­cans. This is a fight for Amer­i­cans everywhere.”

In 2005, Sharp­ton famous­ly sup­port­ed TWU Local 100’s three-day strike in New York City, blast­ing then-May­or Michael Bloomberg’s use of the word thug­gish” to attack union leaders.

Mac Ura­ta, inland trans­port sec­tion sec­re­tary for the Unit­ed King­dom-based Inter­na­tion­al Trans­port Work­ers’ Fed­er­a­tion, an inter­na­tion­al labor fed­er­a­tion which has over 4.5 mil­lion mem­bers, con­nect­ed the push to secure U.S. gov­ern­ment financ­ing with strug­gles against pri­va­ti­za­tion and dereg­u­la­tion in Europe.

It is about time that we find ways to pro­mote pub­lic tran­sit sys­tems for the ben­e­fit of the work­ers and for the rid­ers, and put the mon­ey where the sys­tem oper­ates, and not into the pock­ets of these boss­es,” Ura­ta told the crowd. It is about time that all nation­al gov­ern­ments reverse their cuts in pub­lic tran­sit and pro­mote the most envi­ron­men­tal­ly friend­ly mode of trans­port. … Your fight is our fight. You are not alone.”

Last week, the Sen­ate Com­mit­tee on Envi­ron­ment and Pub­lic Works passed a bill to main­tain fed­er­al spend­ing on high­ways and mass tran­sit at cur­rent lev­els, an attempt to replace the trans­porta­tion leg­is­la­tion that expires in Octo­ber. But that bill did not address the High­way Trust Fund’s fund­ing cri­sis — which means it’s unlike­ly to pass the full Sen­ate and House with­out a cor­re­spond­ing rev­enue-rais­ing plan. As the short­fall looms, oth­er com­mit­tees in Con­gress are soon expect­ed to move for­ward on mea­sures to boost the Trust Fund.

Cole Stan­gler writes about labor and the envi­ron­ment. His report­ing has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Repub­lic and Inter­na­tion­al Busi­ness Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at] Fol­low him @colestangler.
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