Transit Agencies and the Movement Forward
By Jovanka Beckles
Serving on the AC Transit Board continues to take me around both literal and metaphorically complicated routes as I navigate our agency from austerity measures toward justice for our transit users especially, students, low-income users, elders, people with disabilities, and other challenges. This month we have the opportunity to avail ourselves of state funding that will help both our riders and our planet.
The war on Ukraine is a purported cause for the steep rise in gasoline costs. Real talk, the price has increased because the fossil fuel industry can raise the prices whether it is called for or not. Greed is the driving force—-pun intended. The bottom line is that on the heels of recovery from the pandemic and the devastating financial consequences for many, costs are beyond most wage-earners’ limits. Coupled with inflation, many people are feeling financially overwhelmed.
So how do we fight these huge price hikes? For one, we can take the bus. To confront and face the gas hikes we need to reduce demand in the easiest ways possible—we can pay people not to drive. April is Earth Awareness Month, what better way to raise our consciousness than to heed the call to change our use of fossil fuels for the sake of our Earth, while also tackling climate change. From a governmental policy perspective, we can fight inflation and meet our emissions goals by encouraging people not to drive through monetary incentives. Making the bus free is an effective way to use public services to insulate the public from the ups and downs of the capitalist market. This in turn will put pressure on gas prices.
Governor Newsom recently announced a proposal for an $11 billion relief package for Californians to help with rising inflation and gas prices. The funding is slated for the next fiscal year, probably available around July 1, 2022. Some of that money—$750 million—will be focused to support “incentive grants to transit and rail agencies to provide free transit for Californians for 3 months” (my emphasis). Of course I will argue that three months is insufficient but it will certainly get us started in the right direction. It is not clear yet if these funds will be used for free fares, or a combination of discounted fares, but we have been led to believe there will be some flexibility in how the funds can be used. As an advocate for free transit, I will fight to ensure we use them to enable a fare-free system.
The good news is that these funds will not have to go through the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC)—the commission that decided to misuse the $1.7 billion dollar American Rescue Plan Act stimulus funds allocated for Bay Area transit agencies last year. The MTC decided to use the money for future years rather than to prioritize the immediate use of the funds. Those funds, like the ones Governor Newsom is now proposing were meant for emergency use to alleviate a number of crisis situations including: inflation, gas prices, reducing emissions, better air quality, and less traffic. We need to provide fare-free buses. That continues to be my goal.
I am and will continue to be a strong voice against any more austerity for our transportation system. We simply must do better. This is a unique moment to be both fiscally and environmentally responsible. For some of us that will mean riding bikes for transportation—a huge contribution to our planet, for sure. Yet I also know that many people simply cannot walk or ride a bike to get where they need to go. As a community we will push for free-fare and other creative equitable solutions.