Monday, October 3, 2011

Why Rhode Islanders Should Support RIPTA

I am tempted to cite statistics that prove the value of public transportation to economic development; to give worker and student ridership percentages and the savings those riders realize by taking the bus; to give statistics of how ridership has gone up in recent years despite fare increases, to point out that we will never adequately reduce carbon emissions without a robust public transit system; to elaborate the health benefits associated with the more active lifestyle of a transit rider and the improved air quality of communities with less congested roadways; et cetera.

In a more rational world, these valid and persuasive arguments would already have convinced state leaders to preserve and expand Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) service, but there is a more powerful reason to help RIPTA, one suited to our more irrational times. Justifying public transportation service is part of a larger debate about the legitimacy of any and all government services.

Thirty years of the general policy of tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation of corporations and banks, and cuts to public services for citizens has created a seriously unbalanced situation. The concentration of wealth in the hands of the few and the policies that perpetuate it are shameful. They are antithetical to the Christian values that many of us claim as guiding principles and to the simple secular value of treating others as we would be treated. Meanwhile, the government has been starved of the revenue it needs to secure a basic standard of living for its people, just as the ranks of those people who need assistance have been pushed to an epic scale (15 million+ jobless, 46 million US citizens living in poverty, 45 million on food stamps).

Here we are. It’s a delicate moment in our nation’s history when this lack of balance threatens to deliver us into a second Great Depression. For rich and poor alike the atmosphere is full of fear, uncertainty, distrust and anger. We are justifiably hesitant to do anything but hide our heads in the sand.

The dominant modern narrative holds that the government is broke, the people are broke, and we can’t afford to provide any social safety net any longer. Subsidizing our failed financial industry and other mega-corporations while sacrifices are demanded from the people are the prescriptions of the day, redoubling the policies that brought us here. Following this narrative is dangerously irresponsible.

Contrary to the myth, the truth is that the United States economy is bigger than it’s ever been. The gross domestic product is more than 14 trillion dollars. As a country we have never been more rich, but that money is in the hands of a small privileged group.  Does it really make sense to coddle them and cut services for the rest of us? Since our economy is so dependent on consumer spending, doesn’t it make sense both morally and economically to give help where it is needed?

Thus, I present to you public transit as the service where those who care about the forgotten, underserved, and disenfranchised in this society must not back down. RIPTA is the battleground where we need to stop appeasing the bullies and start pushing back and arguing for expanding public services.

Public transportation is the pivot issue, because of all those rational temptations listed back at the beginning of this essay. RIPTA provides a public service critical to social and economic justice, while it is also an engine for business, and vital to the interests of the environmental, and health service communities, not to mention for people who just want to save a buck by leaving the car at home.

To be brief, public transit is where we stand and fight, because it is where we can win. Winning will boost the morale of the compassionate majority and restore some faith in fairness. At the same time it will demonstrate that investing in a public service is good for everybody. Furthermore, winning will give us momentum for whatever cause comes next, and there are many waiting.

Unless the US Congress and the RI general assembly take action to provide adequate and sustainable funding for public transit, RIPTA will face massive service cuts next summer that make this year’s 10% proposed reductions seem small. We have six months to stop that from happening, and we must start now. The first step is to go to sign the “save ripta” petition. The least you can do is put your name on it. If you want to do more than that, get in touch with your local senator and representative and let them know you care. If they don’t listen, they can always be voted out.

This is a slightly different version of the op-ed I wrote that appeared in the Providence Journal today. You can find the projo piece here.

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