*Watch EPW Committee Hearing Video HERE*
U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, pushed for funding to support New York’s public transit systems to help the economy recover from the COVID-19 pandemic in the latest EPW Committee hearing. As transit systems struggle to adapt to significant revenue loss due to sharp declines in ridership, Gillibrand questioned witnesses about the benefits of reliable public transit on creating economic development and jobs, particularly in communities hit hardest by the pandemic.
SENATOR KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: Thank you Mr. Chairman and Mr. Ranking Member, thank you for holding this hearing today. I am very grateful that we have this chance. It should go without saying that the impacts of COVID-19 on New York have been massive and have been felt in every part of our economy – including our transportation systems. Our transit agencies across the state are experiencing staggering losses in revenue due to sharp decreases in ridership. That’s true in New York City and in smaller cities across our state. They all need our help.
Public transit is an absolute lifeline for New Yorkers. The MTA has experienced a decrease in ridership of more than 90% during this pandemic. This decrease is not because people in New York all of the sudden no longer want or need public transit. It’s because people need to stay home in order to stay safe. But despite the decreased ridership, it remains absolutely essential that our subways, busses and rail continue to operate so that healthcare workers can get to hospitals to take care of sick people, and so people can continue to get their groceries and make other essential trips.
For so many of our citizens, particularly our lowest-income community members and communities of color – those are the ones who are hit hardest by COVID-19 – public transit is not simply a choice, it’s actually a necessity. Continuing to provide federal funding to replace the lost fare revenue so that our public transit doesn’t shut down is also essential.
Once this crisis has passed, as it will, the riders will come back. We have to ensure that transit agencies have the resources necessary to ensure those riders are safe.
Limiting transit options and relying on more vehicle traffic in a densely populated city like New York is not the answer. It will leave those who can afford to drive in gridlock and congestion, and those who can’t stranded. The people left stranded will include seniors, people with disabilities, our veteran community, and many of the workers who have proved to be so essential during this pandemic. I’m not going to allow that to happen.
So, while I appreciate the opportunity to hold this hearing today to talk about the role of infrastructure in our recovery, we need action by this Senate as well. We need to listen to our states and our cities that need our help, and they need that help right now. Infrastructure legislation in the Senate is almost always bipartisan, but a highway-only recovery bill would not be a bipartisan approach to addressing the true needs of this unprecedented crisis.
Mayor Fischer, my question for you is what do we need to be doing to make sure that our public transit agencies are able to safely and reliably operate during this pandemic?
MAYOR GREG FISCHER: Thank you Senator. Yeah there’s a multitude of challenges there in our city. You have the whole need for social distancing when you’re on our transit system as well. Our transit system, the local government, runs it at about 10 million dollars a year. Runs a structural deficit, as you all well know, the federal government provides most of the funding. It’s a question of how do we operate in this new environment. Some people are now suggesting that people need to commute more in cars to stop the spread of the virus. We are in this tremendously dynamic world right now where people aren’t really sure what the answers are, and oftentimes they’re polar opposites of each other when they are given. Within those constraints, we are working on the safety issues within our transit system as we get our economy back to work.
But if I could say one other thing. Around America right now, in our downtown areas, most of our businesses are boarded up, literally. While we are focusing on the pandemic right now, we have got to get a relief valve so that our streets are calm throughout America so we can open up our economy as well. That’s just the reality that we have in our cities right now where the house is burning more or less. It’s much calmer here in our city and in many cities as well. But I just want to really emphasize on top of the coronavirus that this is a real issue that we don’t understand how much longer is going to be going on. That we have got to be speaking to our people to say “we understand” and here’s what, moving forward, we expect our economy to be coming back.
GILLIBRAND: Could you talk about some of the benefits of having a reliable public transit system on economic development and the ability to recover?
FISCHER: Absolutely. So, when we think about the impact of the coronavirus, people that were most impacted were our frontline workers – who in most instances are our African Americans, our Latino community. Obviously everyone is aware that there is a disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on 23% of our population is African American, but 31% of the deaths are African American. And that is low too, compared to most of our cities. So, the ability to have public transportation to get these folks safely to work, to a job that pays a living wage by the way, is absolutely essential. Also part of that is to make sure there’s a housing solution. Almost every city in America has a lower income area which is often times not where the jobs are. So, in our housing strategies to have housing – affordable housing throughout the community – so people can get to jobs. That is also a part of our long term solutions.
GILLIBRAND: Thank you Mr. Chairman, and thank you sir.