High Train Transit Costs Make Mockery of Social Justice Goals

COST Comments: Change the transit agency from ‘Trimet’ to ‘Cap Metro’ and the city from Portland to Austin and you have a realistic depiction of the story which is developoing in Austin.

Bus service should be TriMet’s (Portland Transit) first priority

May 13, 2010, 8:00AM
By Guest Columinist: Joseph Santos-Lyons and Jonathan Ostar

Environmental justice demands that everyone has a right to live in a healthy, vibrant community, regardless of race, ethnicity or class. We must all share the benefits and burdens of our decision-making that impacts the environments in which we live, work, play and pray, and we must all have a meaningful opportunity to participate in such decisions.

Transportation is a key determinant of impacts to everyday life, linking people to housing and job opportunities and impacting air quality, levels of physical activity and health. TriMet’s transportation system includes over 100 million transit boardings each year, two-thirds of which occur on a bus. While TriMet has been successful at leveraging public dollars for regional light rail, transit-oriented development and jobs, many are being left behind, particularly bus-dependent communities in East Portland where racial and ethnic diversity, poverty and population growth are all on the rise.

We share outgoing TriMet director Fred Hansen’s disappointment that the recession is forcing significant cuts in bus service for a second consecutive year, all while fares continue to rise. Low-income families and people of color face continued displacement to areas with insufficient services and infrastructure, compounded by health inequities, discrimination and public neglect. As gentrification and displacement force more working-class families into neighborhoods where the bus is their primary lifeline to opportunity and basic necessities, it’s critical that TriMet provide more bus service, not less.

We call on TriMet’s board of directors to make it a priority to ensure sufficient bus service and to consider additional criteria in allocating revenue for bus operations. The mayor’s proposal to track expenditures by district is a good start, but must be supplemented by more accurate data collection on transit-dependent communities.

TriMet must reconsider its policy of using funds for essential bus operation, such as payroll tax revenue, to pay for (or leverage) capital construction of nonessential rail projects. When factoring in annual debt service for these bonded expenditures, a $30 million bond today becomes over $60 million that will be unavailable for bus service over the next two decades, undoubtedly leading to a reduction of tens of thousands of bus hours each year for the foreseeable future. While communities from outlying areas served by the recent MAX expansion have a right to benefit from regional operation, many such transit users are “choice riders,” not “need riders.”

Our local and regional leaders have become light-rail happy at the expense of essential bus service, undermining equity principles. While rail proponents talk about the “green” benefits of improved air quality, until we commit to lining all our streets with tracks, a more comprehensive analysis of transit equity and community engagement is needed before any more spending decisions are made that jeopardize bus operations. Improving the frequency, accessibility and reliability of bus service must be our first priority.

Joseph Santos-Lyons and Jonathan Ostar are co-directors OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon.

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