As chair of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, I passed the major infrastructure bill in the House in the 116th Congress, the Moving Forward Act (H.R. 2), which included funding to strengthen the nation’s existing infrastructure and support new, innovative transportation projects. The Moving Forward Act was not only the vehicle for reauthorizing major projects related to highways, bridges, transit, and rail, but also contained unprecedented provisions on schools, housing, and broadband. Now, in the 117th Congress, my subcommittee has begun its work by addressing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our public transportation systems. Since the pandemic began, ridership on public transportation has fallen precipitously. As more Americans started working from home and public health experts advised against unnecessary travel, agencies like the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) saw ridership and revenue levels crater, with passenger revenue down 89% compared to fiscal year 2020. Since its inception, WMATA has provided an essential service to Metrobus and Metrorail riders across the national capital region, while drivers have benefitted from reduced traffic congestion.
Despite its vital role in the national capital region, the loss of ridership caused WMATA to implement cost saving measures such as closing stations, shortening operating hours, and laying off employees. This has negatively impacted not only WMATA employees, but essential workers commuting to and from work. Before Congress passed additional COVID-19 relief in December 2020, WMATA estimated that without federal assistance, the agency would be forced to close 19 Metro stations, drastically reduce weekday rail service, end weekend rail service altogether, and lay off 3,800 employees. Recent passage of this bill ensured that, for now, WMATA will no longer make the drastic cuts predicted, and the anticipated catastrophic effects will not impact the region’s economic recovery.
Public transportation systems are not only critical to maintaining the current workforce, but also are a catalyst for economic expansion. In the national capital region, proximity to public transportation is a significant marketing asset, with buyers and renters alike seeking to live in areas with access to public transportation options. According to the American Public Transportation Association, home values are up to 24% higher near public transportation compared to other areas. Looking to the future, public transportation systems must help address the biggest challenge of the 21st century, climate change. Transportation is the leading cause of carbon pollution in the U.S. Increasing public transportation will reduce automobile usage, especially for commuting, which in turn will reduce congestion in busy cities like D.C. In the 2019 Urban Mobility Report, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute found that the national capital region lost $4.6 billion in time because of traffic delays, and during that time, used about 90 million gallons of extra fuel. Investing in public transportation is an effective way to save fuel and reclaim lost revenue.
Even with the additional support Congress provided in December, WMATA is still trying to avoid laying off 2,500 employees and severely cutting service from January 2022 to July 2022. At the same time, three quarters of private businesses that support transit nationwide have seen losses due to the pandemic, with nearly 40% considering additional layoffs. Providing additional funding for public transportation systems, like WMATA, will not only maintain the current workforce, but also serve as a down payment on the future success of the national capital region.
My subcommittee is ready to continue this momentum and pass major legislation that will provide stronger, cleaner, and more efficient transportation.
• U.S. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, District of Columbia Democrat, is the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit Chair. In addition to the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, she also serves on the Committee on Oversight and Reform. She was instrumental in bringing to D.C. the new U.S. Department of Transportation headquarters; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms headquarters; the U.S. Department of Homeland Security headquarters compound, now under construction as the largest federal construction project in the country; and an additional Metro station at New York Avenue.
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