With news that the curve may be flattening and states can begin to "open-up", many look forward to life after COVID-19 questioning whether we can go back to the way it used to be. During this quarantined time, I have continued my work as a legislator helping constituents navigate complicated systems as well as honing in on legislation that will have the most dramatic impact on our state as we begin to recover. Public transit, or Oklahoma’s mobility, has been and will be critical to our economic growth.
Last year the passage of HB1365 set forth an opportunity to modernize a more efficient and effective public transit system in the state that will meet the mobility needs of all Oklahomans. Oklahoma’s transit system is currently near the bottom, but HB1365 created the opportunity to make it a Top Ten state. We now need the courage to follow through on that plan.
The new law requires ODOT to develop the long-term Oklahoma Public Transit Policy Plan that is all-inclusive of the public transit systems in the state. More importantly, the Plan will ensure the mobility needs of all Oklahomans are met in such a way as to help re-energize the economy post COVID-19.
People ride public transit for two reasons: to make money and to spend money. When Oklahomans ride the bus to work it is to make money and perform their duties generating economic activity. When they ride it to school it is to help enhance their education in order to make more money. When they ride the bus to go shopping, to restaurants or for other social, recreational and tourism activities it is to spend money. And when they ride it to medical appointments it is for routine care or life-saving procedures, all of which reduce the overall cost of the health care system in the state. That means public transit is an economic development program with quality of life benefits.
Public transit is the engine that drives economic growth. An OSU study found that public transit has an $815 million a year impact on the Oklahoma economy. For every $1 million invested in public transit, $5.5 million is generated.
Current state funding of public transit has remained the same since 2003 at only $5.7 million dollars. That’s a mere $1.46 per person and represents a per capita spending cut since 2013.
Many are discussing the need for a short-term, two-year increase in state spending for public transit. This is no longer just a good idea necessary to meet the mobility needs of all Oklahomans, it is now at a crisis level critical to the survival of transit in the state and the economic recovery from COVID-19.
During this crisis Homeland Security defined public transit as "essential critical infrastructure workforce". As such transit across Oklahoma has continued to perform its daily service to thousands of Oklahomans who depend upon transit as their only means to get to life-saving medical appointments, to grocery stores, pharmacies and other shopping locations, to work, and to other essential places.
Systems statewide have increased safety precautions in a variety of ways. They include increased and deeper cleanings, personal protective actions, social distancing, changes in operating procedures, and following all CDC recommendations. Social distancing on public transit means fewer passengers on all vehicles, and in some cases single rider trips to ensure the highest level of protection for the riders and drivers.
In the short-term costs have gone up, revenue has gone down, hours have got longer, and the responsibilities to the community have increased. In the long-term we must address the viability of Oklahoma’s transit system once the pandemic subsides and we return to a new normal. As Oklahoma recovers from the crisis, public transit will be a major component of the economic recovery. Without an effective public transit system operating seamlessly statewide within and between rural and urban Oklahoma, a recovery will be slow as best, if at all.
As a result of COVID-19 and the related economic collapse, the $71 million transit receives from local sources is going to plummet. Both rural and urban transit providers rely on those local matching funds to leverage federal dollars to keep vans and buses moving.
Prior to the public health crisis many of our transit providers were at risk of closing their doors. That would be especially devasting to many of our seniors and disabled who rely solely on their local transit system for the one meal at the senior site or access to much needed health care like dialysis or to the worker who relies on transit to get to work. That fear has now become compounded with the loss of local resources which are required as match to obtain the federal money.
Without an emergency spending package from the state, transit systems will close. The rural communities will be hit the hardest and when those systems close there will be little to no way for those dependent Oklahomans to get to the doctor, the store, to work – eliminating the potential of a quick economic recovery.
With the current budget situation, some may find it hard to provide this emergency need. But if the public transit system in Oklahoma collapses, the cost to the Oklahoma economy will dwarf the short-term emergency funding amounts.
Transit is the backbone of vibrant urban communities and a lifeline in rural ones.
Whether you ride or not, public transit benefits all of us. An effective, efficient and safe system of public transit is an important matter of concern statewide, essential to the economic recovery and growth of Oklahoma. Mobility matters to all Oklahomans.