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Stalled legislation would help fund critical services

The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority is now among the 84 percent of transit systems around the country that will have had to cut service or raise fares since 2008. It is important to look at why we're left with only these options.

Our economy depends on our ability to get to work, which depends on public transportation. Yet many of our legislators are more concerned with undermining bus drivers' unions than finding real solutions to the very real crisis playing out in our communities.

The debate in Congress over the reauthorization of transportation programs has shut down this month, and it looks like we will be without a transportation authorization bill at least until late March. A controversial issue within this debate, which is a major cause of the NFTA's local crisis, is the limitation on the use of federal funds for public transit. We receive federal support to buy buses or fix up stations, but we can't use that money to pay drivers. As a result, a bunch of unused buses are sitting in parking lots -- and we have to either raise fares or cut routes just to keep our system operating.

VOICE Buffalo has been working with the Gamaliel faith-based network to push for more local flexibility in using federal transit funds. Rep. Russ Carnahan D-Mo., has joined our Transportation Equity Network campaign as a key ally and, along with Rep. Steven C. LaTourette, R-Ohio, has introduced legislation to allow for such flexibility. But the opposition is surprisingly strong, considering this is an easy and no-cost approach to addressing the public transportation crisis.

Among those opponents are large transit agencies that are engaged in labor disputes, including New York City's MTA. They fear, with that flexibility, they won't be able to simultaneously modernize rapid transit systems and claim poverty to the workers on whose backs those systems operate. Meanwhile, this trend will transform public transit into a service for "choice riders" to leave their cars at home on their trips to the ballgame or the airport. As always, the casualty in this political fight will be low-income people who need public transit to get to work.

Public transportation plays such a critical role in our community that we will all be impacted by this attack on transit workers. According to the American Public Transportation Association, every $10 million in operating investment yields a $32 million increase in business sales, and congestion resulting from the lack of sufficient public transit would cost $13.7 billion.

None of us should be surprised by the distorted logic that takes place during an election year; decisions are made based on political calculations, and the notion of the common good becomes laughable. However, we are looking at a bill that will impact the NFTA for years to come, and public transportation is too important to be another sacrificial lamb of election-year politics.

Duane E. Diggs, is president of VOICE Buffalo and a member of the Transportation Equity Network leadership team.