Why saving transit will help save our economy

You might imagine that a new president-elect who is supportive rather than hostile to our region’s most important infrastructure project — the Gateway Tunnel — means we can rest easy knowing public transit is in good shape.

Think again.

During the pandemic, some businesses closed, and millions of non-essential workers began to work remotely. Public transit agencies were hurt both by the loss of fares, decrease in other local revenues and the increased costs for cleaning (supplies, labor and personal protective equipment).

At this point, New Jersey Transit, Amtrak, PATH, SEPTA, PATCO — agencies that serve communities all over New Jersey — are in dire financial straits. COVID-19 relief packages passed by Congress are running out and public transit agencies in New Jersey and across the country are hitting a fiscal cliff.

While ridership is down now with many people working from home, transit can’t just mothball itself and wait out the pandemic. Many workers still rely on public transit to get to warehouses, grocery stores, hospitals and other essential businesses. We rely on these businesses to function and support our survival through the remainder of the pandemic, so we rely on transit to deliver the workers that provide these essential services.

In addition, many residents in Newark and throughout the region are heavily reliant upon bus service to perform routine travel to stores, pharmacies, schools, medical appointments and more.

We also have to think ahead toward the end of the pandemic and what kind of economic recovery we hope to support, especially since transit always has formed the backbone of New Jersey’s economic competitiveness.

The expense of owning, insuring and maintaining cars will make it difficult for laid-off workers to access jobs when the economy opens back up more fully. We’re going to need affordable, robust transit service to give workers access to jobs and claw our way out of this recession. Businesses will need access to that workforce.

If transit agencies are forced to make drastic service cuts, operators and other transit workers are laid off. Bringing that service back imposes rehiring and training costs that can be much greater than maintaining the service in the first place. Meanwhile, those who rely on transit are stranded.

During the 2008 recession, transit agencies across the country underwent devastating service cuts that slowed the recovery and left so many people simply stranded in their homes. Congress failed to provide operating support then to address the problem.

The period following the recession was also a missed opportunity to create and sustain jobs through transit investment. Of all stimulus investments in transportation, investment in public transportation operations creates the most jobs per dollar. As Smart Growth America found in its analysis of the 2009 Recovery Act, every dollar spent on public transportation produced 70% more job hours than a dollar spent on highways. Each mode showed clear differences in jobs produced per dollar: Transit preventive maintenance had by far the highest direct job per dollar result for transit, followed by rail car purchase and rehabilitation, infrastructure, and bus purchase and rehabilitation.

In tough economic times, transit is a lifeline, providing struggling workers with affordable access to jobs. It’s also a way to attract companies to New Jersey. In both boom and bust times, companies have focused their growth and relocation to transit-rich locations where they can foster stronger collaboration internally and with other companies, attract talented employees who want non-car commuting options, and make a difference for the environment.

Transit is essential to the kind of economic recovery we want to create.

We don’t have to make the same mistake in 2021 that we made in 2009. The House passed the HEROES Act COVID relief package in October with relief funding for transit. We need the Senate to follow suit, and both chambers to ensure they provide at least $32 billion in emergency operating support to see our essential public transit systems through the rest of the pandemic. Transit needs immediate support, as well as investments in great projects like Gateway that will help our local and national economies thrive.

Chip Hallock is the CEO and Barbara Kauffman is the chief operating officer of the Newark Regional Business Partnership.