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Report bemoans ‘fractured’ national effort on transit

By Burgess Everett

Local governments and employers are doing their share to boost public transportation’s interests, and now it’s up to Washington and national corporations to step up, the advocacy group Good Jobs First said in a report Wednesday.

“Bosses for Buses” illustrates a landscape where time and again, communities have voted to improve transit — even by raising taxes — while federal resources and companies’ national advocacy efforts are fragmented.

“Outside the Beltway, we see this very strong support for transit,” said lead author Greg LeRoy. “But on the Hill and here inside the Beltway, for three different episodes we’ve seen a very fractured corporate voice on transit and a lot less positive outcomes than on the local level.”

Those key episodes were the continuing struggle for transit tax benefits to be made permanently equal with parking, last year’s surface transportation bill and the stimulus.

One example LeRoy cites: In 2009, the two main transit unions and groups like the Transportation Equity Network pushed hard for more federal stimulus money for transit systems that were being forced to raise fares and reduce service amid budget cuts. But the American Public Transportation Association and big-city transit agencies didn’t join the effort, and $2 billion for operating expenses in the stimulus was “famously deleted by then-White House Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers,” the report says.

APTA lobbyist Rob Healy told POLITICO that his group has consistently fought for operating flexibility for transit systems, including supporting a 2010 bill that would have provided $2 billion in emergency operating funds. But he said providing too much federal support for operations might eventually cause states to turn their backs on public transportation, and APTA wanted to make sure local government kept a stake in the game.

“There was some disagreement with the unions,” he said, adding that “we thought that broad flexibility on operating assistance should be temporary.”

Good Jobs First’s larger point is the lack of coordination nationally among transit riders, operators and companies that benefit from the networks. That means no active national campaigns are pushing to increase transit’s share of federal gas tax revenue and maintain parity between parking and transit tax benefits beyond the end of the year, the report says.

Local bright spots include Cleveland, where two hospitals embraced one of the nation’s best examples of true bus rapid transit, eventually paying more than $6 million for naming rights. Business leaders in Phoenix created “Friends of Transit,” which joined with the local Chamber of Commerce to push for a self-taxation scheme that has birthed a busy light-rail line in the famously car-centric city.

Closer to D.C., the report lauds the effort to build a rail “Purple Line” link between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties after passage of a massive transportation funding bill in Maryland.

But each transit agency has different needs, which makes creating national momentum more difficult. Some networks need to grow to accommodate growing or shifting populations while others face a yearly fight to preserve existing service. Regions differ in their prefered tax structures, and some employment centers are built in a sprawling manner that makes centralized transit service a struggle.

“The thing that unites most of the local coalitions for transit is that most of the employers are dependent on transit for their workforce,” LeRoy said. “At the national level, it’s more often true that the companies involved are the companies that make their business on transit.”

Still, the national level has some success stories. Transit advocates in Congress defeated a House GOP-led effort to sever federal public transportation funding from the gas tax in 2012, and transit riders got a stocking stuffer when the fiscal cliff deal offered a two-year extension of the transit tax benefit.

The recent establishment of a public transportation caucus by Reps. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) and Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) also indicates support for a cohesive direction in Congress on public transportation policy. But LeRoy wasn’t sure about how to create a truly national advocacy campaign.

“We don’t have a specific canned answer to that,” he said.

This story originally appeared in Politico on May 29, 2013 and is available here:

You might think parking at a GET bus stop is illegal but at half the stops in Bakersfield it's not. People with disabilities say parked cars at those stops prohibit them from riding the bus.

Advocates say they've been working to make all the bus stops no parking zones since 2010.

In 2011 the city passed an ordinance giving them the flexibility to designate bus stops no parking zones, but for the community of disabled people that's not enough. They want all the stops to have red curbs.

"If there is no signage and no red curb yeah actually people can park there," said Gina Hayden, Spokesperson for the Golden Empire Transit District.

"It prevents us people with disabilities from getting on and off the bus in a safe way," said Brandi Midkiff, Community Advocate for the Independent Living Center for Kern County.

Midkiff says when cars park on the curb the bus stops in the street, forcing passengers to walk out to board the bus.  For passengers with visual impairments like Midkiff it's a risk. For passengers in wheelchairs like Brian Rathfelder it may be impossible.

"If the bus doesn't have a chance to pull up to the curb and if the bus doesn't have an opportunity to pull up to the curb it can't let out it's ramp for me to have access to it," said Rathfelder.

According to a city memom cars can park at more than 50 percent of the bus stops in Bakersfield.

"By only allowing them 50 percent access to any and all stops it says that they are only 50 percent human. They're only allowed 50 percent of their rights," said Shawn Kennemer Director of Client Services for New Advances for People with Disabilities. "That's ridiculous."

The city, who's in charge of parking regulations at bus stops, sees it in a different way. They say designating no parking zones at all bus stops would take away valuable street parking for homeowners and businesses.

"We have to balance everyone's needs in government," said Russell Johnson, Bakersfield City Councilmember for Ward 4. "We have to look at a situation and think how can we resolve it by keeping everyone's needs satisfied and that's exactly what we need to do."

If a bus stop is designated a no parking zones, drivers can't park next to at least 130 feet of curb. But the city agrees that some stops need to be looked at. Johnson's plan is to get a list of all the bus stops you can park at and evaluate each one.

"We need to deal with it on a case by case basis," said Johnson.

"Our argument is why should our access be decided on a case by case basis," said Midkiff. "We want to get on at all bus stops."

"It's public transportation," said Rathfelder. "Are we not members of the public? Are we being discriminated against? I just don't understand."

This story was originally reported on Channel 17-KGET TV on March 25, 2013.  The printed story and video report is available here:

By Bob Nakata 

POSTED: Apr 10, 2013

It's past time to shoulder the burden of a serious increase to the minimum wage. It has been more than six years since Hawaii increased its minimum wage — and workers in this highest cost-of-living state are living from hand to mouth. The truth is, things have been hard for a big part of the local population for a long time.

Many work two jobs, and even then it's hard to make ends meet. The growing crowd of homeless people, the steady pace of foreclosures and the crushing scarcity of time for family are all stations on a spectrum of economic insecurity that has been hanging over Hawaii for almost a decade.

What makes this particularly hard to take right now is the expanding economy that is all around us — the stock market is soaring, tourism is at the highest levels ever and house prices are rising rapidly.

At the lower end of the wage ladder things are hard and getting harder. More than 70,000 workers in Hawaii would see a raise if the minimum wage were increased to $9.25 per hour. More than 88 percent of these workers are adults over age 20, and a substantial share are struggling to support children at home.

For many people the minimum wage is at their second job — and sometimes even their third. The wage is low compared to its buying power when I was a young man in Hawaii. Then, the minimum equaled more than $10.60 per hour in today's dollars, but thanks to decades of inaction, the minimum wage today has lost much of its purchasing power as the cost of living has continued to rise.

Even the boldest proposals being considered at the Legislature today do not fully restore the lost value of the minimum wage. The House isn't even sure it wants to meet President Barack Obama's modest $9-an-hour proposal; it seems wedded to $8.75.

It's certainly true that the increase needs to be phased in over time, perhaps 18 months to two years to give small businesses time to adjust. But there is an urgency to this increase that does not appear to have reached every nook and cranny in the state Capitol yet. Our people need a fairer wage and they need it right away.

As the discussion continues, I have grave concerns about increasing the so-called tip credit as a part of this legislation. Tip credits allow businesses to pay workers less based on the assumption that the employees will make tips. Yet tips are an income stream that does not involve the employer — they are between the customer and the server, and are based on the quality of the service. It seems remarkably unfair to insert the employers into this dynamic by exempting them from wage laws.

Increasing the tip credit essentially allows the employer to reach into the pocket of the server and take some of their tips. Even worse, tipping does not occur across the board — in the visitor industry, a large percentage of tourists are from countries that do not tip, so hotel workers cannot rely on tips in the way that workers who serve local customers do.

The bottom line is our people are struggling to get by, while the economy is growing. That's not good for individual families, but it is also bad for our island culture because it erodes the bonds of ohana and community.

Government can't solve everything but it has an important role to play — and adjusting the minimum wage is the moral responsibility of the state legislature. Let us all pray for the courage and discernment for our elected leaders as the season of horse-trading has begun.

This article originally appeared in the Star Advertiser on April 10, 2013 and is available here:

Hunt: Education, jobs key issues in 2nd District

Dr. Martin Luther King once remarked, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”

As we come up on the April 9 election to select a new representative for the 2nd Congressional District, we now have the opportunity to be all that we would like to be. But to do so, we have some important choices to make.

Chief among them is electing a candidate who embodies the character, principles and diversity of not just the south suburbs but the South Side of Chicago and Kankakee as well.

It’s a very tough choice. But in deciding who to vote for, we need to first consider the candidates’ stands on the issues of education and a south suburban airport.

A biblical proverbs encourages the community to “train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” Key to the current and future success of the Southland is ensuring that our youth receive a quality education.

But this has been threatened by youth violence, high dropout rates and low educational achievement. I see the need for a real and sustainable economy every Sunday within my congregation.

Andrew Sum, professor of economics and director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, conducted a study that showed:

High school dropouts cost society on average of about $70,000 during their working years.

About one-third of high school dropouts receive food stamps, compared with 17.3 percent of high school graduates and 8.6 percent of those who have an associate degree.

The incarceration rate among male high school dropouts ages 18 to 34 was 14.7 percent in 2010, while only 3 percent of male high school graduates spent time behind bars.

Nineteen percent of males, 30 percent of Hispanic males and 27 percent of African-American males did not have a high school diploma in 2010.

Further, a 2009 study conducted by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago reported that “high school graduation is a strong indicator of social and economic well-being.”

The study also revealed that average scores on an important third-grade reading exam are also down — more than one-fourth of all students failed the reading portion of the Illinois Standards Achievement Test in 2009.

The solution is to promote and provide early childhood education so students will possess the tools they need to be successful throughout their school years and into adulthood.

Additionally, programs that include faith- and community-based partnerships would provide restorative justice, parent-leadership development and collaborative strategies to provide students and parents with mentoring, counseling and other social services.

A south suburban airport would provide more economic and transportation equity by providing more opportunities for employment in the Southland. It would be a robust economic engine that could generate billions of dollars of revenue to surrounding communities.

The airport near Peotone will attract a variety of aviation and service-related commerce to the area, including professional firms, hotels, restaurants and other businesses that improve the economy and lower the tax base.

Most importantly, when the first stage of the airport is approved to go forward, it will mean thousands of aviation-related jobs and 1,000 construction jobs immediately. Those are well-paying jobs that the Southland community needs and deserves.

And as the airport expands over the years, it will generate more jobs — perhaps for you, your children and your grandchildren.

The choice as to who our new 2nd District representative will be should be predicated on where he or she stands on such critical issues.

Like Dr. King, I have a dream that this beloved community of the Southland continues to make education a priority for our young people and reassumes its place as a transportation and economic center in the nation.

I leave you with the thought that “the time is always right to do what is right.”

The Rev. James E. Hunt is president of the South Suburban Action Conference in Lansing, which works to unify the area’s white, Latino and African-American communities. He is also chairman of economic development for Gamaliel Metro Chicago, a partnership between SSAC and the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council.

This article originally appeared in the Southtown Star on March 26, 2013 and is available here:

Repair Our Crumbling Infrastructure the Right Way

Seventy thousand bridges in America are structurally deficient. Fixing this and other critical problems with our national infrastructure is a policy no-brainer.

In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama unveiled his “fix it first” plan, a $50 billion program for repairing the nation’s roads, highways, bridges and transit systems. Although this is a step in the right direction, the plan should also meet the concerns of the newly emerging transportation-justice movement, about which we have heard nothing from the president so far.

The Obama administration last directed major funds toward infrastructure as a part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The government spent more than $31 billion, with a focus on “shovel-ready” projects.

By contrast, the new fix-it-first plan would spend most of the initial funds on sites that are “most in need of repair,” according to a summary the White House shared with the New York Times. A smaller portion, id="mce_marker"0 billion, would go toward a national infrastructure bank. Finally, the administration has vowed to cut red tape and, according to The Hill, to “encourage public-private partnerships, leveraging the initial government funding to increase private sector spending on transportation.”

These proposals are a good start, but the plan should also be evaluated for fairness.

In fact the phrase “fix it first” originated with activists primarily concerned with fairness. These are community groups, faith-based organizations, labor unions, and other activists throughout the country who see themselves as part of a movement to ensure that public transit services meet the needs of the actual public. They are drawing attention to the fact that effective public transportation is a vital part of an integrated social justice agenda.

In the transit justice community, “fix it first” means that the government should prioritize maintaining existing roads and transit resources over spending money on widening roads or building new expressways that encourage sprawl.

That the administration has borrowed language of transportation advocates is a good sign. But it should go further. In this latest push for infrastructure spending, the message should not only be “fix it first” but also “fix it fair.”

How can we ensure that the interests of fairness are taken into account? I propose three criteria: infrastructure investment should embrace equity, both in its planning and in terms of the communities that it will benefit; it should provide good jobs; and it should increase competitiveness.

Equity demands that we avoid transportation mistakes of the past. In places such as Minneapolis and Oakland, plans for light rail have bypassed or priced out riders from poor neighborhoods. Similarly, light rail development in some communities has come at the expense of bus and paratransit riders—disabled and elderly riders who rely on specialized public transportation services. Such injustices occur when poor communities (both rural and urban), communities of color, and other groups that depend on public transportation are excluded from municipal planning and development.

Grassroots organizations have sprung up around the country to represent local interests and fight for transportation justice. It shouldn’t be difficult for policymakers to consult groups such as Community Labor United in Boston or Urban Habitat in the Bay Area and better serve all members of the community.

Second, President Obama’s fix-it-first policy offers an opportunity for government and the private sector to work together to provide a real boost to working families. Our standard should be clear: all new projects should guarantee workers family-supporting wages, good benefits, and proper health and safety regulations at worksites. Project contractors should also be required to hire from the local population. As the Transportation Equity Network has argued, “All major projects funded . . . [should] include community benefits agreements that ensure that low-income people, people of color, and women have a fair shot at the jobs created.”

Last but not least, a new infrastructure agenda should promote economic competitiveness. The importance of infrastructure to American business should make transportation funding a bipartisan cause. But it has become hostage to austerity and Republican intransigence.

The Obama administration has tried to structure fix it first so as to bypass Congressional gridlock. Instead, the White House plans to go directly to the states to map out the financing of repair and construction projects. This is the right idea. Congress is too dysfunctional to come up with a solution in time to save the most sensitive parts of our crumbling infrastructure, which is so clearly in the nation’s best interest.

We compete with China, India, Germany, and myriad other countries that have no trouble overcoming partisan strife to keep their roads, rails, and bridges in good shape. While we spend 1.7 percent of our GDP on transportation infrastructure, China spends 9 percent. Other countries also have strategic plans for future projects of national significance, while the United States has floundered without a blueprint.

Metropolitan transportation projects should also take a long-term view and focus on enhancing regional competitiveness. Transportation investment should include strategies for reducing carbon emissions and greenhouse gases, cutting down on traffic, and holding contractors accountable to employment and environmental standards.

Additionally, to push the country forward, we need a heavy emphasis on funding and planning for mass transit. A recent study from Infrastructure USA notes [PDF] that of America’s hundred largest metropolitan regions, only 30 have light rail or subway systems. A highway can only transport a fraction of the people a subway system can. Building new mass transit systems is a more efficient use of transportation dollars and will help attract more investment to a given region.

President Obama deserves our support in pushing for quick action to fix our nation’s roads, rails, and transit systems. But the administration can also do itself a favor by approaching fix it first from a transportation-justice perspective. A fair plan will help to repair America’s economy, alongside its bridges.

This article originally appeared in the Boston Review on April 3, 2013 and is available here: