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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Rowena Pineda: The road back to normal needs a fully funded STA

By Rowena Pineda

By Rowena Pineda

Spokanites have faced some of our greatest challenges ever in the past year. The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis have negatively impacted working people, families and businesses across our community.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel, and it gets brighter every day. A return to “normal” is no longer on the distant horizon, it is right in front of us. But to get there we need to vaccinate as many people as possible. We are making progress, but we are not there yet. I should know. Groups led by people of color including the Spokane chapter of the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition, in partnership with the Native Project, have been working to get our community vaccinated.

While many of the challenges of the vaccine program have been well documented like logistical challenges, supply challenges, demand challenges, pauses in some of the vaccines available, and others, one challenge that has gotten far less attention is how we actually get people to their doctor or local pharmacy or hospital or local health center to get the shot.

For many in our community the answer is the same: public transit.

Due to COVID-19, the Spokane Transit Authority has faced an existential threat. Thanks to the tireless work of rider groups, labor unions, environmental organizations, disability groups and transportation activists, our public transit system and others across the country were able to get the funding we needed to bypass disaster. But we know that if we are going to return to normal public transit needs more than just avoiding disaster.

The American Jobs Plan, proposed by President Biden and currently being debated in Congress, would invest much needed dollars to help ensure that we’re not just returning to pre-COVID conditions, but instead rebuilding public transit systems that work for people.

The pandemic has dramatically shown that transit is essential to our community, our economy and now the urgent need to vaccinate our community. Essential workers depend on and operate transit, small businesses depend on transit, and historically marginalized communities depend on transit. Transit is a key component of a more environmentally sustainable society, and is the road to equity for disenfranchised communities: rural, urban and suburban.

But for years, lawmakers in DC neglected funding for buses while fueling highways and cars. This choice has put communities of color, people with disabilities, and poor people of all races at a disadvantage, with less frequent and less reliable transportation.

With the American Jobs Plan, we have a chance to start fixing our priorities.

We must seize this opportunity to increase funding for public transit to the same level as highways and help ensure that all Americans have access to high quality, safe, affordable, and reliable public transit service and transit-friendly communities.

And we must invest in public transit operations – because what good are new buses or vans, if there’s no one to operate them?

Today, STA’s operations, like those of others across the country, are funded by local taxes, fares and fees – a model that is no longer sustainable. Investing in public transit operations would expand the service of our buses, and help ensure the majority of Spokanites are within a physically accessible distance of frequent transit by 2030.

Investment in public transit pays off in jobs, and is key to revitalizing our downtowns and neighborhoods battered by COVID. By one estimate, every $1 billion invested in transit supports and creates more than 50,000 jobs. In particular, transit investments help Black and Brown people get a foothold in the economy. The larger the investment, the more people of all races and backgrounds benefit.

Like our public roads and highways, America relies on public transit to make our economy work. American workers and consumers depend on frequent, reliable, and affordable transit to get to where they need to go and keep American businesses thriving. The American Jobs Plan is a great first step toward building a new normal, but we must also go further to update how we fund transit and specifically operations.

Because the road back to normal for our community is a fully funded STA.

Rowena Pineda is an advisory committee member of the Spokane chapter of the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition.

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