Friday, February 26, 2021

Inequality-research organization says rural public transit needs more investment during pandemic

"With the pandemic taking a devastating toll on local budgets, the U.S. public transit system is battling to survive. For much of the country, this funding crisis jeopardizes an already withering lifeline," Kayla Soren writes for the Institute for Policy Studies, a nonprofit that studies structural inequalities. "For many Americans, public transit is the only option to get to work, school, the grocery store, or doctor’s appointments. But nearly half of us have no access to public transit. And those that do are now confronting limited routes, slashed service times, and limited disability accommodations."

More than a million rural households lack a vehicle and must depend on informal arrangements, ride-hailing services such as Uber, and/or public transit services to get around. The need is especially acute for rural residents who can't drive because they have a disability. "Over 80 percent of young adults with disabilities are prevented from doing daily activities due to a lack of transportation. And there aren’t enough resources to properly train transit workers for accommodating people with disabilities."

Rural public transit services are also critical for essential workers, the elderly and those who serve them, and survivors of domestic abuse. Dozens of transit riders and workers, many rural, testified at a recent two-day national community hearing about their needs for public transit. It's "unacceptable" that millions of rural Americans must get by with inadequate or no public transit, Soren writes.

"Congress can help. Public transit needs at least $39 billion in emergency relief to avoid service cuts and layoffs through 2023. But more broadly, we need to revise the '80-20' split that’s plagued federal transit funding since the Reagan era — with 80% going to highways and less than 20% to public transit," Soren writes. "Part of the justification for this disparity is that only people in dense, urban areas use transit. This is upside-down logic. The hearings reveal that when people don’t use transit, it’s because it is nonexistent, unreliable, or inaccessible."

Some inequalities go even farther than rural vs. urban: A new fact sheet published by the Appalachian Regional Commission illustrates disparities in public transit between not just rural and urban counties, but between rural counties outside of Appalachia vs. within Appalachia. As the report notes, only 7% of rural Appalachian counties served by fixed-route transit services have evening service, compared to 50% of non-Appalachian rural counties in Appalachian states.

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