Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Race, Class and the Transportation for Illinois Coalition

The Transportation for Illinois Coalition's recent press conference calling for $5 billion a year in new transportation funding over the next five years without proposing a funding source attracted some additional media coverage. ( e.g., here)

The Governor, in the meantime, made clear in response that his priority issues--health care and education--have to be dealt with before he is willing to discuss significant increases in transit and highway funding. The Governor is stumping hard in minority communities trying to build support for his package. No leader in the General Assembly has yet stepped up to lead the charge for a significant increase in transportation funding.

The Chamber of Commerce, the co-leader (with the AFL-CIO) of the TFIC, has just unveiled a new website entitled "Largest Tax Increase Ever" dedicated to blocking the so called "mother of all tax increases" the Governor has proposed. The website states that: "The Illinois Chamber of Commerce is committed to stopping Governor Rod Blagojevich's proposed tax increase - a reckless and irresponsible affront to every employer and worker in Illinois." Yet, one searches in vain on this website for any constructive suggestions for how the State can deal with its fiscal problems and/or funding the $25 billion five-year transportation program the TFIC is proposing. Nor does the Chamber--or the TFIC--acknowledge the importance of the investment in human capital that the Governor's health care and education initiatives represent.

Likewise, the Governor has not acknowledged the importance of the transportation system to the Illinois economy. It is as if the two sides--a populist Governor and the establishment Chamber of Commerce--are blind to the legitimacy of each other's program. The Governor at least deserves points for laying out a funding plan, unlike the Chamber, which is doing its hypocritical best to undermine the prospects for a tax increase of any sort without making any concrete proposal for how to fund its plan, much less any other initiative.

These developments suggest that a major race/class political divide is emerging. The wealthy and predominantly white Chamber pushes a jobs and economic development transportation package that will help sustain their business interests. The Governor and his rainbow coalition of "little people" push for health care and education, two things that will help the members of this constituency compete more effectively in the global marketplace and avoid the problems associated with no health care (e.g., ill health from delayed treatment, bankruptcy).

Public transit funding is a big part (almost 50%) of the the TFIC transportation proposal and, of course, is the whole of the Moving Beyond Congestion's $12 billion program. Public transit riders on average tend to be less prosperous and less white than those who travel by private auto. What is noteworthy is the lack of strong support from these riders and their community leaders for major increases in transit funding. Instead, it appears that the Governor's health care and education proposals resonant much more with these folks than the serious problems facing the region's public transit system.

It has been striking to me how white and prosperous (looking) are the advocates for the public transit funding program. The transit cognoscenti who have frequented the transportation fora I've attended these past few months are quite unrepresentative of those who actually ride the system. The executive directors of all three transit agencies and the RTA are all white men. Representative Julie Hamos, the most prominent member of the General Assembly focused on transit issues, represents a district in the northern suburbs, not the inner city where transit use is heaviest. When transportation, including public transit, has all the trappings of an elitist issue, it is tough to generate a groundswell of widespread support for more transit funding in the face of issues like health care and education that have a much more populist appeal.

On a personal note, I understand the appeal of the health care issue and why folks might prefer a few more potholes and less frequent bus service if that means they don't have the worry that a serious illness may mean their financial ruin. At church last Sunday I learned that one family of four, with a Dad suffering eye problems with a family history of detached retinas, has no health insurance. Thus, Dad is delaying treatment as long as possible, putting his eyesight at risk. I learned that another family of three, with mom suffering from chronic arthritis, has no health insurance either. The sense of shame and frustration these people--who all read as middle class in dress and speech--expressed at being unable to afford basic health care, is not something that I will forget.

In light of the human cost of doing nothing to address the health care problem, the Chamber's description of the Governor's effort to address the problem as "reckless and irresponsible" is truly deplorable. That the RTA and the Moving Beyond Congestion folks would join themselves at the hip with the Chamber in the face of this rhetoric makes it no surprise that the public transit issue has not ignited widespread public interest or concern thus far.

Every time Jim Reilly, the RTA's Chairman, shares a press conference with the same Chamber of Commerce that is working hard to derail the Governor's tax, health care and education initiatives, he further alienates the very community of lower income and minority public transit riders who are a natural constituency for a broad-based effort to increase public transit funding. This is not a smart thing to do with a populist governor in a blue state who is pushing two issues of more importance to most of the "little people" in this State.

The alternative is to make public transit a social justice issue like health care and education. That kind of rhetoric is notably lacking from the RTA and its Moving Beyond Congestion proponents. By defining transit as a social justice issue transit will be situated as next in line after health care and education get addressed. But by yoking transit to the anti-tax, anti-Governor bandwagon that the Chamber of Commerce represents, the RTA and the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents are much more likely to gain little or nothing this legislative session.

Where's George Lakoff when the RTA needs him to reframe its rhetoric.

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