Monday, January 21, 2008

Overcoming the transit crisis: let's talk about "free rides"!

The crisis over mass transit funding for Chicago and the collar counties has been overcome for the moment with the passage of the $530 million transit bill in Springfield.

On a positive note - let's hear it for the seniors! They deserve free rides.

The discussion in the mass media has been disgraceful. After all, our senior citizens worked their whole lives to create the wealth of our society, they paid their taxes, they sacrificed to raise their children and get them through school. And yet many live in deep poverty, are forced to choose between eating and heating, prescription drugs and property taxes.

We, for one, have no problem with it. The reprehensible idea of a needs test is reflected also in the efforts to restrict Medicare and Medicaid. Besides, who rides public transit? Overwhelmingly working people, especially low income workers. Wealthy seniors won't be riding public transit anyway so it's not a matter of giving something to someone who doesn't need it.

Chicago would not be the only city that would offer free rides. Other cities do it either by area, time of day or by demographic. High school students are given half fare rides.

It's an important precedent and should be extended immediately to others, including the disabled and low income.

There's been discussion recently about free transit altogether in London and New York City, to relieve the growing crisis of traffic congestion and cut down on the costly public repairs due to the car culture foisted on us by the auto and oil monopolies. We're ready for that discussion.

We do have a problem with the transit bill - the state legislature's solution to the funding crisis falls once again on the backs of working families in the form of higher taxes and fees. And for that - let's not scapegoat the seniors.

In fact it seems solutions for all funding shortages at the state, county and city level is the call for higher taxes and fees that fall hardest on working people.

What galls us is not enough of our elected officials are talking about the two "sacred cows" - taxing the rich and the military budget. On these, there's only vast silence emanating from the corporate mass media.

What galls us is that few are talking about the "free ride" for big business, including the $100s of billions in corporate subsidies. You certainly never hear this from Mayor Daley, who has engineered $100s of millions in corporate tax abatements and privatization give aways.

One of the only discussions was around the gross receipts tax introduced by Gov. Blagojevich, which regardless of its problems, went in the right direction. And for that Blagojevich was nearly hounded out of the state by big business.

Few of our state legislators are talking about the free ride the wealthy 1% have gotten with the Bush tax cuts, and generally the regressive tax structure.

Few are talking about the "free ride" for the giant military contractors, those making guaranteed billions in profits off the Iraq war, and useless armament systems.

These policies are bankrupting our towns, cities, counties and states. If a fraction of that money were redirected to pay for mass transit, public education or universal free health care we would have no funding problems.

So let's not debate a few million when we should be talking about trillions.

This is a public debate we'll be forced to have because as RTA chairman Jim Reilly reminds us, there are $10 billion in capital improvements looming, including replacing aging buses and trains, track and equipment repair. This doesn't even include an extension of the mass transit system, including the long anticipated extension of the Red Line, and putting on more buses and trains.

The public debate already is encompassing new federal spending priorities, which under the Republican ultra right domination of the presidency and Congress, have dismantled funding for mass transit, and other areas of social spending.

Electing a president and Congress in 2008 that moves in this direction will be a vital first step. The desire by millions for a radical change of federal priorities is reflected in the mass outpouring of voters in the primaries thus far.

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