One thing that the covid-19 pandemic has taught us is the importance of public transit.
The Port Authority of Allegheny County has kept our city and region running. While businesses were shuttered to curb the spread of the virus, brave bus drivers and light rail engineers, conductors, mechanics and operators continued to show up to work, providing a way for essential workers to keep our grocery stores, hospitals and nursing homes functioning.
Yet the Port Authority is facing serious challenges that threaten its future. And we are seeing similar issues across the commonwealth, including in Westmoreland County, which would have faced cuts in service without federal support.
Work-from-home orders coupled with record-high unemployment have severely depressed ridership, threatening the fiscal stability of the system.
While President Biden’s American Rescue Plan provides billions in short-term relief to get our transit agencies through the worst of the pandemic, Pennsylvania also is facing a transportation funding crisis at the state level.
Act 89, passed nearly a decade ago, has helped support the Port Authority by providing stable and predictable revenues. This has enabled us to finally break away from a vicious cycle of budget crises and threats to service that was driving riders away from the system. Yet key provisions of that law are due to sunset in 2022.
To address this problem, both our congressional delegation and our elected leaders in Harrisburg need to step up.
At the federal level, it is crucial that Congress pass the president’s American Jobs Plan, a $2.2 trillion infrastructure package that would create millions of good-paying union jobs building a 21st century clean energy economy.
Public transit is a key part of the Biden proposal, which allocates $85 billion to bring existing systems up to a state of good repair, reducing congestion, curbing vehicle emissions and creating new jobs.
The president’s plan enjoys overwhelming support, with about 80% of Pennsylvania voters in favor of it, according to modeling in a new poll released by Data for Progress.
Harrisburg also must follow the president’s lead and make the investments in infrastructure we need at the state level.
While the president is proposing a one-time, transformational investment, we need a state transportation fix that provides a stable source of revenue that allows the Port Authority to plan for the future — and that sustains the ambitious service expansions laid out in the agency’s NEXTransit plan, which calls for increasing airport service and extending light rail service north from the North Shore.
Gov. Tom Wolf has taken the first step in addressing this impending crisis by convening a Transportation Resources Options Commission tasked with forging consensus on a funding plan that can pass the Legislature.
Harrisburg needs to double down on investments that would put Pennsylvania at the forefront of fighting climate change while making our state more economically competitive and creating union jobs.
It’s time for our elected leaders to meet the current crisis with a once-in-a-generation commitment to building a more prosperous and sustainable future for our communities.
State Sen. Lindsey Williams, a Democrat from West View, represents District 38. Josh McNeil is executive director of Conservation Voters Pennsylvania, a statewide advocacy organization.