Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) joined several Queens lawmakers on Tuesday in calling for $20 billion in dedicated funding for public transit agencies and raising the alarm about declining subway and bus service in New York.
Called the Stronger Communities Through Better Transit Act, the federal bill would earmark the funding for operational costs like service improvements and require agencies to meet the unmet needs of historically underserved communities. Meng said the bill is different from other spending plans that have passed at the federal level because it would dedicate funding toward projects such as signal repairs and more frequent bus service — the less glamorous, but important, upkeep of the transit system that seldom gets ribbon cutting ceremonies.
“It’s not just about more money — because we’ve been asking for, and in many cases have gotten, more money through our state, city and federal government over many, many years,” Meng said during the East Elmhurst press conference. “But it’s the way the money is used and appropriated for us New Yorkers and people who are literally riding and delayed by our transit system.”
Why it matters: The push for more transit funding highlights deep concerns over the state of public transit, which took a massive financial hit during the Covid-19 pandemic. Proponents said reliable transit service continues to be an issue in New York and most spending plans fail to fund much-needed upgrades.
It also signifies the changing political landscape. Many transit projects that were prioritized by New York officials were sidelined under the Trump administration and lawmakers have been looking to make up ground under the more transit-friendly Biden administration. State Sen. Michael Gianaris, who attended Tuesday’s rally, said now is the “moment” to push city priorities like increased transit funding.
“This is the most pro-urban chance we’ve had in a very long time — we cannot miss this opportunity,” he said.
Details: The bill would provide the Metropolitan Transportation Authority with $3 billion annually over four years. Lawmakers said the funding would help ensure the MTA could improve service without raising fares as it continues to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Earlier this year, the MTA postponed a planned fare hike, citing the pandemic’s economic impact on its riders.
Other proponents on Tuesday included Queens Borough President Donovan Richards and state Assemblymembers Catalina Cruz and Jessica González-Rojas. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who supports the bill and was scheduled to attend, missed the rally to attend a vote scheduled in the Committee on Financial Services, her spokesperson said.
Haggling on the Hill: The push for the bill comes after $10 billion in public transit funding was stripped out of the federal infrastructure bill, which passed the Senate last month. Transportation groups are pushing for that money to be restored in the $3.5 trillion infrastructure spending plan that is being presented as a follow-up to the infrastructure bill.
Renae Reynolds, the executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, referenced the cut when voicing support for the Stronger Communities Through Better Transit Act.
“Funding for public transit in the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate is insufficient to truly rebuild an economy that works for everyone and one that is just and environmentally sustainable,” she said.
The infrastructure bill sets aside $10.7 billion for the MTA and $38 billion for a slate of major Northeast capital projects.
Key context: The MTA faces daunting challenges as it looks to rebound from the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Subway and bus ridership is still down roughly 50 percent. Meanwhile, traffic is surging on MTA bridges and tunnels, in some cases surpassing pre-pandemic levels. The data has raised questions over how the MTA will stay fiscally solvent with declining levels of ridership — and caused concern about the potential for an alarming rise in congestion.
After receiving $14.5 billion in federal pandemic relief, the MTA is fiscally solvent. But MTA officials have warned of deficits looming in 2023 or 2024 with ridership still low.
Richards said the only way to get people out of their vehicles and back onto mass transit is to provide a “functioning transportation system that’s reliable, that’s safe.”
“This has to be a key part of the recovery as we bounce back post the pandemic,” Richards told POLITICO after the rally.
Originally published in Politico New York on September 15, 2021.