Dedicated public transit funding is critical for economic recovery

Dedicated public transit funding is critical for economic recovery

Metro Nashville is facing unprecedented challenges, grappling with the aftermath of devastating tornadoes, a local response to a global pandemic and fiscal woes that essentially forced one of the largest property tax increases in recent history.

The national and local economies are reeling from a significant economic retraction because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nationally, the unemployment rate reached a staggering 14.7% in April, with 20.5 million jobs lost that same month. In Nashville, the hospitality, entertainment and tourism industries have been notably ravaged, leaving scores of workers without jobs and scrambling to collect unemployment benefits. Though there is a lot of understandable uncertainty about when and how best to move forward in the midst of such a far-reaching public health crisis, one thing is crystal clear: Planning and investment in public infrastructure and mobility is absolutely vital for economic recovery and success.

A city that works for everyone?

More specifically, Nashville needs a dedicated funding source to support a local and regional transit system if it is serious about making good on Mayor John Cooper’s promise to make Nashville “a city that “works for everyone.”

As the vice chair of Moving Forward, which recently issued its annual report, it was incumbent upon us to acknowledge just how important select workers are in our daily lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, and just how important it is that those same workers are able to not only participate in any form of economy recovery, but also benefit from any future form of economic growth.

Essential workers face challenges

The pandemic drew attention to the necessity of essential workers, such as the employees of grocery stores, hospitals and delivery services. As such, the pandemic also put a spotlight on the challenges many of those workers face in commuting to their jobs. Public transit has proven to be essential for communities’ resilience during crises like this one. It connects residents to jobs, food, health care and other basic needs. Public transit is also a crucial feature of communities’ recovery after disasters.

Metro Nashville is dealing with competing priorities and limited funding during this time of crisis. City officials made the difficult decision to remove local funding from WeGo Public Transit and instead funded the system’s budget with one-time federal CARES Act funding. Of course, this is a temporary fix and not a permanent solution.

This is particularly troublesome because WeGo’s funding has been diminished in recent years, and research by Transportation for America found that in communities where transit funding and operations suffered during the Great Recession, when the economy rebounded, employees who were reliant on transit were slower to see their personal and household wealth and economic well-being rebound. Because of a lack of investment in robust and reliable transportation options, they could not take full advantage of the economic recovery. We cannot let that happen in Nashville.

Communities of color especially hard hit

It is no secret that communities of color have been disproportionately affected by the novel coronavirus in two distinct ways – in terms of the number of cases and deaths and in terms of job loss.

Although unemployment data disaggregated by race is not yet available on the county level, national research indicates businesses owned by African Americans are more likely to suffer from temporary and permanent closures. Further, African American and Latinx residents are more likely to be employed in jobs that cannot support remote work. And lastly, but perhaps most importantly, Black and Latinx people are more likely to be employed as essential workers.

In Nashville, WeGo has said that the 65% of the bus stops that have been heavily utilized during the pandemic are in low-income neighborhoods and those riders who are using public transportation the most are likely essential workers. This is why it is absolutely critical that dedicated funding for a robust, regional public transit system be a part of any and all conversations related to Nashville’s recovery from the coronavirus. It is not just an equity issue, it’s a moral one. We have an obligation to take care of those who have taken care of us.

As Mayor John Cooper and others look for ways to ensure Nashville works for everyone, they should be thoughtful, bold and innovative in making sure our public transit system and the funding allocated to it does, too.

 

This was originally published in the Tennessean on July, 23, 2020.

 

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