By Barry Schiller
Buses have considerable environmental advantages over cars, cost less for people to use, and promote economic development by helping people get to work, school, and shopping. They also promote public health through encouraging moderate physical activity by walking or biking to bus stops. These points are well known. In a rational world, our leaders, in preparing Rhode Island for our future, would have already acted to preserve and expand Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) bus service. But there is also an even bigger reason to help RIPTA. Justifying public transit is part of the larger debate about the legitimacy of all government services.
Thirty years of tax cuts for the 1%, deregulation of banks and corporations, and cuts to public service have created a seriously unbalanced situation. The concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and the policies that perpetuate it are shameful, and contrary to what should be our shared values and treating others as we would wish to be treated. Meanwhile, the government is starved of the revenue needed to secure a basic standard of living for all our people, just as the ranks of those needing assistance have grown to epic proportions.
Thus we are at a delicate moment in our nation’s history when this lack of balance has created an atmosphere of uncertainty, fear, distrust, and anger. The dominant narrative has been that the government is broke, the people are broke, and we can no longer afford the social safety net. The dominant prescription has been to subsidize our failed financial industry and other mega-corporations while sacrifices are demanded of the people— the very policies that have brought us to this point. Fortunately, now the Occupy movement has arisen to challenge this dangerous narrative.
Contrary to myth, the US economy is bigger than ever, and its gross domestic product is over $14 trillion. The country is rich, but the money is largely 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 driven by consumer spending, doesn’t it make sense to give help where it is needed?
This is an area where those who care about the 99% should not back down. RIPTA is a battleground where we must stop appeasing the bullies and start pushing back and arguing for public services. And winning this battle will give us momentum for the next cause, and there are many waiting.
Unless the US Congress and the RI General Assembly act soon to provide adequate and sustainable funding for public transit, RIPTA will face massive service cuts next summer when a $10 million deficit looms. RIPTA’s funding stream is largely based on a fixed-cents-per-gallon gas tax that has not only not kept up with inflation, it has actually declined in dollars as folks drive less or use more efficient vehicles. Indeed, over the last six years or so, the revenue per given cent of gas tax has declined from about $4.8 million/year to about $4.2 million, just as RIPTA’s diesel fuel costs have approximately doubled. If this is not addressed, RIPTA projects the next few years will see the loss of all holiday service, most evening and weekend services, and longer waits on many remaining lines. ADA “RIDE” van services for the disabled will no longer be available to complement the discontinued services.
We have until the end of the legislative session in June to stop this from happening and we must start now. A first step is to go to your nearest computer and type “save ripta petition” into your favorite search engine or visit http://www.change.org/petitions/save-ripta to sign the petition. To do more, get involved with the new RIPTA Riders group (for infor- mation, call the RI Sierra Club office, 521-4734) or contact your local state Senator or state Representative and let them know you care. We do have real support from riders, community groups, and even some politi- cal leaders. Together we can save RIPTA!
Barry Schiller is a former RIPTA Board member and a member of RIPTA Riders.