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Back to the Back of the Bus | The Nation

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Back to the Back of the Bus

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After years of scrambling to ferry people around, Rawls now contracts with a private car service. Cost: $20 a day if a person lives in the city, $35 if in the countryside. A bus pass is $15 a week, but given the need and the state of the bus system, it's not surprising that buses often run empty while the car service, flush with demand twenty-four hours a day, is expanding its fleet. Rawls pays the service out of federal welfare money. The 1998 federal Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, or TEA-21, has a special fund, with the infelicitous name Job Access/Reverse Commute, to subsidize transportation for "welfare transitioners," but Rawls was denied funding two years in a row.

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JoAnn Wypijewski
JoAnn Wypijewski, who writes The Nation’s “Carnal Knowledge” column, has been traveling the country...

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Once women on welfare get jobs--often at minimum wage or just above, in restaurants or hotels or office maintenance departments, starting or quitting at hours when the buses don't run--"transportation," Rawls says, "is one of the chief reasons they're not able to keep those jobs." For those women, private car services aren't an option. After three months of full-time employment, there's no more transport subsidy and no monthly check. Then it's really patch, patch, patch.

Alabama has a transportation budget of $1.3 billion but is one of only a few states in the country that spend nothing on public transit. In 1959 the road interests amended the state Constitution to stipulate that all fuel taxes and license/tag fees--now worth almost $800 million a year--are to be spent only on highways, bridges or motor-vehicle law enforcement. For a sense of scale, Montgomery's broken bus system costs about $3 million a year to operate; just a fraction of that state money pot, to match federal and local contributions, could put it back together. The statewide legislative action group Alabama Arise is pushing to amend the Constitution to include "public transportation" among the fundable items. The legislature is split along racial lines on the proposal, though all acknowledge that nearly 700,000 Alabamians--out of a total population of 4.4 million--are "transportation disadvantaged."

There is more symbolism in Montgomery's situation, but, as during the civil rights movement, the greatest hardship from inequality in transportation is felt in the Black Belt counties beyond. On the outskirts of Montgomery and Birmingham, billboards advertise jobs, but in the rural parts people can't even get to the nearest town to be counted as unemployed. In Montgomery the official unemployment rate is 4 percent. In Wilcox County, about seventy-five miles away, it's 11 percent, and that's almost certainly an undercount. You can apply for public assistance in Camden, the county seat, but can't get it unless you register with the employment service, which is in Selma, forty miles away. There are no buses or taxis in Camden. The Rosebud Action Community Center owns an old schoolbus but hasn't been able to raise the $1,600 a year for insurance. If you're poor and your car won't run, you can get money for repairs if you're on welfare, but if you're working, you're stuck. If you're a young man, especially, and can't qualify for public assistance, can't qualify for volunteer transport, you're at the mercy of others. If you're on Medicaid you can get vouchers to go to Montgomery or Birmingham for, say, cancer or kidney treatment, but if you're just over the bar for Medicaid, you might have to cancel your appointment. To qualify for drug or alcohol rehab programs, you have to attend a support group, which meets in Selma; if you can't get to Selma, can't get to group, you can't get rehab. If you're blind and qualify for vocational rehab, you have to travel to Mobile, 170 miles away. If you're commuting to school and can't get there because of a problem you can't solve quickly, you might lose your placement and have to start all over again. If you miss work because sometimes you can't get there, if you lose a job because the car of the neighbor you ride with breaks down, if you build a record of "lapses in employment," you're a bad bet. If you have to see a shrink in Selma every week and your transportation fails, there goes your visit; maybe there goes your medication too. If you miss your medication and start flipping out at home, maybe there go your kids.

"Talk about being vulnerable all the time," says Sister Mary Jean Tucci, a Catholic nun who works with a variety of social services in Selma.

No one in the state Department of Transportation thinks much about what the people of Camden or Selma or Montgomery need. This infuriates Jon Broadway because from 1998 to 2003 Alabama has been guaranteed more than $3 billion in federal money under TEA-21, which requires states to involve the citizenry, particularly low-income and minority populations, in determining spending plans. Alabama allowed for no such involvement before deciding that bridge replacement was its top priority. In the end, the state's share from TEA-21 averages $19.5 million a year for six years for public transportation infrastructure and planning, versus $533 million a year for highways, bridges and road projects. Meanwhile, the DOT continues to seek additional millions for its Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail along US 80. The road interests will be able to congratulate themselves for honoring civil rights, no doubt destroying US 80's haunting simplicity with bridges and extra lanes in the process, while the plain people still labor just to get a ride.

"After forty-five years of struggle, seems we'd be in a different place," says Johnnie Carr, president, since 1967, of the Montgomery Improvement Association. She lives with her husband, Arlam Sr., in the same white Victorian bungalow on South Hall Street that served as a vital substation for information, supplies and rides during the boycott. At 89, she remains an organizer in a city more comfortable with icons. On the anniversary of Rosa Parks's arrest, Montgomery dedicated the Rosa Parks Library and Museum at Troy State University, situated on the corner where Mrs. Carr's friend and movement sister was taken off the Cleveland Avenue bus. Rosa Parks, a certified icon, the "tired seamstress," is the only bus rider all of Montgomery acknowledges, and she lives in Detroit. The museum holds a replica 1955 bus and a replica Chevy station wagon, like the ones Mrs. Carr mobilized to take people to and from their jobs. It was built with $2 million from the federal transportation fund intended to help poor people today get back and forth to work.

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