Notes on Political Venality, Pomposity and Associated Stupidity.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

"Brother Can You Spare a Ride?"

The lack of financial support for public transportation in the U.S. is appalling and worse yet, it is an obvious and clear assault on those in lower socio-economic brackets and on our cities. How so?

Just do some quick math and think about how much it costs to buy a car, insure it and maintain it each year. For a well-to-do middle class worker, this isn't a terrific burden. But for a poor person, the costs associated with car-ownership are tremendous and eat up a disproportionate amount of that person's take home pay each week. It is essentially a regressive tax. This leaves public transporation, in the form of buses or trains or streetcars, to fill in the blank. But blank is what many local mass transit systems are getting. In Pennsylvania, both the Pittsburgh (PAT) and Philadelphia (SEPTA) systems are on the verge of collapse, and are threatening severe service cutbacks. And nobody, it seems, not the state or federal government, are willing to help out.

At the same time, however, everyone is all smiles about a new Interstate in Southwestern Pennsylvania which is being funded to the tune of 2-billion dollars. Am I the only one that sees the contradiction here? The contruction promises "economic development" to the former steel towns along that area's Monongahela River valley, but who knows. The nation is paved with roads which were built on these promises -- and a great many of them are still waiting for that glorious day.

Amtrak is a favorite whipping boy of Congress. Each year a whole raft of indignant legislators stand up and bemoan the cost of the supporting this vital passenger rail service. They talk about how is has to be "subsidized" and can't "stand on its own feet" and they threaten to cut off funding. Of course, they always do vote to fund it; their railing against the rails is just a political act they put on for their constituents. But ask yourself this; why is funding train service called, perjoratively, a "subsidy," when spending 2-billion dollars on a short stretch of Interstate in Pennsylvania is called "economic development?" We have been subsidizing the Interstate system, and by extension, the automobile, since Ike put his stamp on it in the 1950s.

So why is money being spent in the hinterlands and not in and around our cities? Politics. The current administration doesn't get a lot of votes from the inner city, so there is no impetus to help them. Think of both Pittsburgh and Philly and you think Democrats, Unions, minorities; you don't think GOP. In fact, by making a point of not aiding mass transit, the Admin and it's cadre of yes-men legislators are really thumbing their noses at the cities. This isn't just benign neglect, it's a chance to say, "Hey, you old Democratic cities, make it on your own or die. You didn't vote for us and we're not here to help you out!"

And while this is all about money and politics and social policy (or lack thereof) the real bottom line is the human one. People who are poor, or working at low-paying jobs depend on buses for their livelihood. Without the buses, their ability to get to work is diminished, if not entirely eliminated. Without a job, their lives spiral downward, with the associated social costs and the cost to the government in terms of welfare, food stamps or ADC. How's that for your "ownership society?"


UPDATE: Since I wrote this piece, some "stop gap" funding has been found for both SEPTA and PAT, but only enough to forestall service cuts and fare hikes for a few short months. PA Governor, Ed Rendell promises "action" when the State Legislature goes back into session, but who knows.... Support would be strong in both of these book-end cities, but not in the rural central part of PA. James Carville once called PA "Alabama, with two big cities at each end." and he was right on!