The legislation is slated to provide the state with an estimated $674 million in new funding over five years to invest in public transportation, according to a White House fact sheet about the legislation. The funding is particularly needed because an estimated 32% of transit vehicles in Missouri are past their useful life.
The fourth installment of the UniverCities Exchange series brought together transit officials in St. Louis and Kansas City with faculty members in public policy and public health last Wednesday for a panel discussion about the importance of taking advantage of this opportunity as well as what can be done to create a more equitable and accessible system that more people take advantage of.
UniverCities Exchange is an ongoing collaborative project between the University of Missouri–St. Louis and the University of Missouri–Kansas City, that gathers community leaders and academic experts to discuss problems and possible solutions to issues affecting the St. Louis and Kansas City metropolitan areas.
Danny Wicentowski, a producer for “St. Louis on the Air” at St. Louis Public Radio, guided the discussion among panelists Terri Bar-Moore, director of government relations for the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority and a member of the Board of Directors for the Missouri Public Transit Association; Kim Cella, the executive director of Citizens For Modern Transit and the Missouri Public Transit Association; Amanda Grimes, an assistant professor in the UMKC School of Nursing and Health Sciences; and Todd Swanstrom, the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor in Community Collaboration and Public Policy at UMSL.
“Transportation, I think as we know, is about people,” Wicentowski said as he kicked off the hour-long webinar. “It’s how they move and where, but where that transportation infrastructure goes is based in a lot of ways and how money moves and where it moves from.”
Missouri has typically been slower to invest in public transportation infrastructure than it has been in building highways, which carry residents to and from work in increasingly sprawling metropolitan areas.
The lack of investment has impacted low-income commuters. The people who have to rely on public transportation typically spend an extra 79.6% of their time commuting than their car-riding neighborhoods, and non-white households are 10 times more likely to commute via public transportation, according to the White House fact sheet.
Cella believes strongly that greater investment in transit can have wide-ranging impact.
“The key is really to demonstrate that public transit makes a difference in your life, whether you’re actually boarding a bus that morning or that afternoon or a train,” Cella said. “I think that that message continues to resonate, and we’ve used that message at the state level, and we’re hopeful that that was part of what moved our state legislators this year with regards to the increased funding for public transit.
“I think that it’s a call to action for everyone when we talk about public transit that whether you’re getting on that bus or whether you’re getting on that train, it really is important to your daily life – that it delivers essential workers, it helps others get to health care appointments. It also delivers individuals to education.”
Cella noted the benefits UMSL students, as well as staff and faculty members, gain from having access to two light rail stations as well as bus coverage to get to campus.
“He wanted to make sure that everybody had access to transportation and access to opportunity,” Bar-Moore said. “The way to do that was to implement zero fare so you have no reason, no excuse not to get where you need to be. He thought that was important to connect everybody to opportunities, no matter what their financial circumstances were. We’re very proud of that.”
Swanstrom believes better public transit can also be a lure for young professionals seeking the urban lifestyle now more easily found in cities along the East and West coasts. Bringing in more of these educated and skilled workers can serve to bolster the regional economy.
“Young people want to live in cities where they can live in an exciting, hip community, where they can have microbreweries and coffee shops and restaurants and other things,” Swanstrom said. “So they’re looking for this kind of lifestyle, and if we as a region are going to compete nationally for young professionals, where they want to locate, whether it’s in universities or education or financial technology or geospatial technology, whatever it is, we’re going to have to have communities that are mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly and transit-friendly. We need to do that as a region. This is something that’s good not just for the city but for the entire region.”
Grimes has also been studying some of the potential health benefits associated with public transportation, whether from the increased physical activity walking to and from transit stations, the additional time spent outdoors or the greater access transit can provide to more grocery stores and healthier food options than are available in many neighborhoods.
But many people aren’t ready to take advantage of those benefits.
“Behavior change is hard,” Grimes said. “That’s a lot of my field of study – how do we get people more active? How do we change different behaviors? It really is hard. But I think giving people advice, I’d say try it once for something social, lower stakes. If you’re 15 minutes late, it doesn’t matter, or if you needed to navigate a new route. Or try it one day a week to commute to work by transit. Start small, get your bearings, get used to a new environment, new situation. It will be easier, and hopefully you can then build on that.”