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Riding the Bus to a Green New Deal


Richard Marcantonio is a managing attorney at Public Advocates Inc., in San Francisco, where he specializes in civil rights and economic justice issues in the areas of housing, transportation and climate. He was co-counsel in Darensburg v. MTC.

In a recent video, “A Message From the Future,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s voiceover imagines a time when climate collapse has been averted. Now a seasoned member of Congress, she rides the bullet train to the Capitol. It’s a whimsical opening to a compelling narration. But it raises two important questions: first, will the Green New Deal (GND) come all at once? And second, will it come riding high-speed rail or the lowly city bus?

The two questions, it turns out, are connected.

Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal resolution is structured around five goals: (A) carbon neutrality and a just transition, (B) creation of millions of good-paying jobs, (C) investment in sustainable infrastructure, (D) achievement of a healthy and sustainable environment, and (E) “stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression” of “frontline and vulnerable communities.” 

The first thing to say about the logic of these goals is that every dollar of massive new public investment spent under a GND policy framework, whether at the federal level or at smaller geographic scales, would deliver public infrastructure or services, while simultaneously creating good-paying jobs, cutting carbon pollution, and addressing historic oppression of “frontline and vulnerable communities.” (I’ve written separately about the significance of the resolution’s definition of “frontline and vulnerable communities,” and a framework for addressing their historic oppression in the context of a GND).

These principles should apply to local investment as much as to federal funding. Indeed, the GND resolution should be understood not only as a comprehensive federal program, but more immediately as a policy template that working people, through struggle, can strive to apply to any large source of funding. 

What does that have to do with high-speed rail and the local bus? 

The single largest contributor to U.S. carbon pollution is transportation, at 29% of greenhouse gases (GHGs), with passenger vehicles and light-duty trucks making up the largest share of that slice. The Ocasio-Cortez resolution mentions transportation explicitly in section 3(H), calling for a GND mobilization that will “overhaul[] transportation systems in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible, including through investment in—(i) zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing; (ii) clean, affordable, and accessible public transportation; and (iii) high-speed rail.” 

The fantasy that places high-speed rail at the center of GND transportation will no doubt die hard. Indeed, California has (likely illegally) funded the first small segment of its own high-speed rail (HSR) project, a 32-mile stretch between two adjoining Central Valley counties, with a cumulative $1.2 billion share of its “Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund.” This fund, seeded by cap-and-trade revenues, is used to make investments to advance the state’s climate goals.

But the idea that bullet trains are part of the solution has three strikes against it. First, long-haul rail will not meet the transportation needs of millions of working people, particularly low-income residents who can’t afford high fares and tend to make short trips. Second, new HSR projects will not open for service soon enough to address the 2030 IPPC deadline. And third, at over $80 million per mile in California, the construction pricetag of HSR comes at the expense of more useful forms of transit.

What would you call a magical form of transit that did not require years of delay before opening service, that was cheap to run and to ride, that reduced carbon emissions to as little as zero, and that got working people where they needed to go with the greatest flexibility possible? 

You’d call that the local bus.

Urban Bus Service Under Attack

The local bus is the most common form of public transit in the United States. In 2017, bus agencies operated nearly 49,000 buses for a cumulative total of 159 million hours of service, dwarfing rail service by a factor of three. The local bus carried the lion’s share of ridership, as well, with 4.5 billion trips, compared to just half a billion each for commuter rail and light rail. [NTD 2017 report, pp 14-15]

Who are those bus riders? Nationally, about 60% are people of color, compared to 40% for rail riders. Black riders, for instance, comprise nearly twice as large a proportion of bus riders as of rail riders (36.8% vs. 18.9%). By income, the disparities are even greater: over half of bus riders have household incomes under $25,000, compared to under 15% of rail riders; conversely, nearly 55% of rail riders have incomes over $75,000, vs. barely 20% of bus riders. 

These demographics directly affect the economics of bus service. Because they serve riders of much lower incomes, bus systems typically recover far less of their operating costs at the farebox — about 23% on average, as compared to 53% for commuter rail and 64% for heavy rail. [NTD 2017, p 13] 

This would not pose much of a problem if subsidies for bus operations were on a par with capital subsidies for rail systems. But federal transit funding, with limited exceptions, is only eligible for capital uses, and much funding at the state level is also restricted to capital uses. That matters because bus service is heavy on operating revenue (Data: 2016, p. 11), while rail is capital-intensive. (Data: 2016, p. 23). See Darensburg v. Metropolitan Transp. Com’n, 611 F.Supp.2d 994 (N.D. Cal. 2009).

That means that bus agencies go begging for the funding they need to pay the bus drivers and mechanics that make service available on the street, even as their fares fall far short of covering day-to-day operating costs. As a result, bus systems struggle to maintain existing levels of service and ridership, while rail service grows. To give a ten-year snapshot: from 2007 to 20016, bus service grew only 3.5%, compared to 16% for commuter rail and 35.5% for light rail (2016, p. 28).  During the same period, bus ridership fell 5.9%, while rail ridership grew by 11.7%. (2016, p. 27). 

Structurally, this amounts to an attack on low-income riders, especially riders of color, and on unionized transit workers. That attack is purely political. As a matter of sound policy, bus service is highly cost-effective, especially in denser urban areas; can be deployed immediately; is highly flexible in terms of routing; and is increasingly run with zero-emissions vehicles (ZEVs).

Bus Transit and a Green New Deal

In short, vastly increasing bus service, while dramatically reducing fares, is critical to achieving timely decarbonization. Investment in public transportation (unlike ZEVs and HSR) is integral to the goals and structure of the GND resolution. 

And while the resolution does not explicitly emphasize transit operating funding (as opposed to capital expenditures), that is exactly what its logic demands. What other expenditure of public funds will simultaneously get working people where they need to go, reliably and affordably; create good-paying green jobs; cut carbon emissions; and meet the needs of vulnerable communities without displacing them?

That is why, here in the San Francisco Bay Area, a group of social justice organizations have proposed a “GND for Transportation” framework. The context is a proposed multi-county transportation funding ballot measure that could bring $100 billion to the region. The group’s Vision and Principles call for “cost-effective investments that move more people around the region with fewer cars, create good-paying jobs, and reduce carbon emissions.” They specify significant investments in “everyday transit operations through frequent and reliable service,” and particularly highlight investments that meet the needs of underserved residents and avoid displacement. 

A massive infusion of operating revenue into our urban bus systems is long overdue. The call for a GND is an excellent time to make it a reality.