Civil rights icon Rosa Parks’ courageous refusal to move to the back of the bus triggered a movement that restored dignity and respect to Americans of African descent. Part of the power of her act of civil disobedience came because it took place on public transportation, not in the lobby of a four-star restaurant.
The working poor — of all skin colors — rely on trains and buses to get to their jobs. Their jobs often don’t pay enough for them to afford their own vehicles. Though Maine is the whitest state in the country, what might be described as a bigoted transportation policy impacts people here.
“Transportation is back as a major civil rights issue. Today’s focus is not on getting a seat at the front of the bus but on making sure the bus takes us where we need to go,” according to Angela Glover Blackwell, CEO of PolicyLink, an advocacy group focusing on equality. That quote leads a report issued by The Leadership Conference, a civil rights advocacy group, on transportation.
In Maine, it is not the color of people’s skin that inhibits their economic upward mobility but rather the rural nature of their communities. National and state transportation policy tilts heavily toward moving cars and trucks along heavily subsidized highways and roads (80 percent of the federal transportation budget), not on public transit. And most public transit is focused in urban areas.
Subsidizing public buses traveling to Bangor from Newport, Dover-Foxcroft, Howland, Hancock and Belfast — each are spokes of roughly 50 miles — would boost employment opportunities for hundreds of people and leave them with more disposable income in their pockets by not having to pay for vehicles, repairs and gas. The annual cost of car ownership averages $9,498, according to the Leadership Conference report.
The report also notes that “Americans in the lowest 20 percent income bracket, many of whom live in rural settings, spend about 42 percent of their total annual incomes on transportation, compared to 22 percent among middle-income Americans.”
A third of low-income African-Americans don’t have access to a car as do a quarter of low-income Latinos and 12 percent of low-income whites.
Bangor and Portland both have well-used and efficient bus systems, but they can be expanded to reach farther into rural communities. The GOMaine.org commuter website, which links those who want to share rides or use state-owned vans to commute, is also a good resource. But more can be done.
Though we are in the midst of lean times, government spending on transportation — roads and bridges, buses and trains — has been shown to have a very good return in creating jobs. The answer is not to decrease work on our state’s and nation’s decaying transportation infrastructure but to spend more on public transportation.
In addition, the report recommends that low-income people have more of a voice in transportation planning. In Maine, those voices should also be from rural areas.