Fund It, Fix It, Make It Fair: Public Transit in the New Economy

In this April 5, 2012 photo, an MBTA train pulls into a stop on Commonweath Avenue near Boston University in Boston. The tunn
In this April 5, 2012 photo, an MBTA train pulls into a stop on Commonweath Avenue near Boston University in Boston. The tunnels and bridges have long since been built, but Boston's massive and oft-maligned Big Dig project has left a legacy of debt in Massachusetts that many contend is crippling the state's overall transportation network. Big Dig debt was cited as one of the reasons why the MBTA was forced last week to raise fares and cut some service. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

The Alliance to Develop Power has invited our closest allies to help us get the word out about our participation in the JobRaising Challenge. We've asked them to share stories of their work with us, explaining how our joint efforts tackle some of the most intractable problems in our communities. We want to demonstrate how collaboration is key to creating jobs and expanding our vision of a new community economy.

By Jeremy Shenk, executive co-director, Community Labor United

Just for a minute, put yourself in an organizer's shoes.

You are coordinating a campaign for Transit Justice. On the ground, "transit justice" means achieving good public transportation services in neighborhoods of color. It means affordable fares, even if you're elderly and disabled or young and jobless. Transit justice means access - to jobs, schools, and opportunities.

The people you're organizing need transit justice. But you have to convince the mayors who sit on your Regional Transit Authority board that the system needs to be fixed.

How do you show them -- not just tell them, show them -- what it means when trips take five times as long by bus as by car? When buses don't run after six in the evening, and you have to call a cab when you're working overtime? More: how do you show them that the people who use the system know how to solve these problems?

Well, how about a bus tour? Driven and narrated by transit workers and riders?

That was the answer the Alliance to Develop Power came up with. It's why we value ADP as our partner and anchor in western Massachusetts.

Our outfit, Community Labor United, has bitten off an enormous challenge. 2013 is the do-or-die year for Massachusetts's public transit systems. The Governor and Legislature have promised to fix their chronic funding crisis so they can repair, rebuild and replace their trains, buses, and subway cars. Funding them, though, is just the first step. We need to fix them -- bring in transit workers and riders to redesign the routes and get working people where they need to go, efficiently. And we need to make them fair so everyone can afford to use public transit.

We've got a strong start. Our partners, community organizations and labor unions, represent the working people who need reform most. Those people are mobilized: they've flooded public hearings, blocked fare hikes and service cuts. However, it's a long way from there to legislative action. We'll need unrelenting grassroots pressure. Working people will have to represent themselves and tell their own stories. It'll take creativity to bring those stories to the people who mold opinions and make decisions.

ADP brought all those together in the bus tour they organized last summer. Working with sister groups and union bus drivers, ADP members drove through Massachusetts's Pioneer Valley. At every stop, local elected officials listened while transit riders said what was wrong with the present system and how it could be fixed. Local papers covered the story, and ADP Tweeted and Facebooked it out to their members, validating the work they'd put into it and building enthusiasm for more mobilization.

Meanwhile, ADP and CLU were asking the Legislature for stopgap funding for Massachusetts's regional transit authorities. We got the money.

A few months later, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority called off a proposed fare increase.

It's a good start. The next step: get riders and workers on the Transit Authority's board, redesign the routes, and create a public transit system that works for everyone. That's a tall goal but we can reach it with grassroots power and creativity. Our most recent video features an ADP activist and a Springfield bus driver going through their day, weaving their stories together, showing the unity between riders and workers that undergirds our Transit Justice campaign.

We share a vision with ADP -- justice, sustainability, and a new economy. And we share an approach: the people who most need change are the ones who have to be driving that change.