Vice President Kamala Harris and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) were in Cincinnati on April 30 for a roundtable discussion on public transit and the importance it holds, not only in the realm of mobility, but its influence on economics and equity.
Vice President Harris and Sen. Brown were joined by Darryl Haley, CEO and general manager of Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA); Eddie Koen, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio; Troy Miller, president of ATU Local 627; Vikas Mehta, professor of urbanism at the University of Cincinnati; and Jill Meyer, president and CEO of the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce.
Vice President Harris began the discussion by noting her belief that “good transit equals vibrant communities” and the administration seeing transit investment as investment in job creation, community improvement and access to opportunity.
The Biden Administration’s American Jobs Plan proposal calls for $85 billion over eight years to be invested directly in transit and includes $25 billion to help transit fleets transition to zero-emissions, as well as $40 billion in training to help workers prepare and participate in new economy jobs, such as training bus mechanics on how to maintain zero-emission fleets.
SORTA’s Haley was the first to speak and touched on the importance of transit as a way to make connections. Hamilton County, Ohio, voters approved Issue 7 in the spring of 2020 that provides SORTA with new funding through a sales tax levy of 0.8 percent. The funding generated by the ballot measure allowed SORTA to launch its Reinventing Metro plan that aims to better connect the region to jobs, education, health care and entertainment. Haley brought an example to the roundtable discussion with a rider who needed to work Sundays to keep her job during the rest of the week, but Sunday bus service made it so that she had to take a rideshare vehicle, which cost her the entire day’s wages. Sunday service will become more frequent and new on a few routes through the Reinventing Metro plan.
Meyer touched on the importance choice and access have on economic development. She noted Cincinnati is an older city with a developed core, but noted there are several opportunities for job seekers in surrounding communities, as well as opportunities to develop communities around transit. She noted a “growing economy needs transit access.”
The Urban League’s Koen noted the opportunity costs to the region’s communities of color and used an example that if a rider spends three hours a day commuting to a job, there is a two-hour opportunity cost associated with the trip. He also urged discussions of transit to use a lens of equity, saying that if it is not used, the consequences can be unintended harm.
The ATU’s Miller explained the challenges of the past year on the front-line workers and said one-eighth of the union’s 800 members tested positive in the past year. He also noted his appreciation and excitement that the Biden Administration included proposed funding for training of members, like those of Local 627.
Prof. Mehta made the distinction between hard infrastructure – the bridges, roads and facilities of transit – and the soft infrastructure – sidewalks and crosswalks. He said both are equally important and should not be separated but viewed as an entire experience for the end user. He said transit should not be viewed as a product, but as a system and an ecology.
Vice President Harris drew the roundtable discussion to a close saying she took “copious notes” and expressed her gratitude to those who joined her.
“What this conversation has revealed are the many dimensions and therefore the many people in the various capacities of their lives — how they are impacted by public transportation,” said Vice President Harris.
Shortly after the roundtable concluded, Vice President Harris was asked how she would approach an “expanded definition of infrastructure” with Republican voters.
“I am willing to bet you that when the people of Cincinnati get on those buses being driven by Troy Miller’s members, they do not ask, ‘Are you a Republican or a Democrat?’,” Vice President Harris replied. “When we are looking at the capacity to grow the economic vitality of communities, including small businesses, and increase the productivity of a workforce, much less expand the workforce, what we know is that the reality is that people — regardless of who they vote for and with which party they’re registered with — that’s what they want. And that’s what they want to see their government focus on.”