St. Louis, Mo.—According to a Harvard study, transportation is the single most important factor in an individual’s ability to escape poverty. In July 2022, a one-in-1,000-year flooding event hit St. Louis, dumping 25 percent of the normal yearly rainfall on the city in 12 hours.
The July deluge caused $18 million in damages to St. Louis’s MetroLink light rail network. Whole trains, station elevators, miles of track, and signal houses took significant damage. “Homes were flooded,” Representative Cori Bush said in September,
“people lost vehicles and became displaced. That’s happened in Georgia, and in Rhode Island too. And in Jackson, Mississippi, a predominantly Black community has no access to clean water. This isn’t happening in a community that’s affluent.”
Missouri’s Bi-State Metro Transit agency requested $22 million in emergency funds, which sent Representative Bush’s office on a five-month campaign. “People told us it couldn’t happen,” Bush told The Nation, “but I remember being out in the flood water. I was in-district. I just remember it was coming down so hard and so fast, and on social media, we started to see people in trouble in the inner city of St. Louis, and we hit the street.”
Partnering with outgoing Missouri Republican Senator Roy Blunt, Bush’s team organized with other Democratic members of Congress whose districts were also in need of climate-disaster funding. New York delegation members Jamaal Bowman, Jerrold Nadler, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Richard Torres, Carolyn Maloney, and Nydia Velazquez requested $75.67 million for the state’s Metropolitan Transit Authority—repairs were needed after severe damage from 2021 Hurricanes Ida and Heri—as well as for Puerto Rico’s decimated infrastructure from Hurricane Fiona in 2022. Bush threatened to withhold her year-end budget vote unless this nationwide climate disaster funding was approved. “This was not politics as usual,” Bush said. “I couldn’t vote for a package that didn’t include funds for St. Louis.”
In January 2022, Bush won. President Biden’s year-end omnibus budget approved $213.9 million through the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Climate Relief Fund (49 USC 5324). The aid is spread across four years, and will address an enormous backlog of needed investment across the country, including the 2022 flood damage in St. Louis. “The best way to describe it is that that fund was going to have zero dollars in it,” Bush said. “We didn’t know that we would get it done, our office was working hard, and we were up against time.”
The Climate Relief Fund repairs light rail, bus networks, subway tunnels, water taxis, ferry operations, and other transit systems across the country that have been damaged or destroyed by cataclysmic weather such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods. In the coming months, eligible transit providers with disaster claims for 2017, 2020, 2021, and 2022 can apply for funding. “We’re talking about emergency relief funds,” Bush said. “This is an area we had to push a lot, and center St. Louis, and center people riding the Metro system.”
Yearly climate disasters are rapidly increasing in frequency and magnitude because of global warming. In 2017, Hurricane Irma became the harshest system to hit the US since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That year, the 2017 FTA Climate Relief Fund was $0.
“We know it’s a class issue,” Bush told The Nation. “Lots of folks in Congress have never had to rely on a transit system. People have work, doctor appointments, child care. They shouldn’t have to worry about this.”
The story of the FTA funding is about standing in place rather than losing ground, which often reflects the larger state of US public transit. After years of neglect, the multibillion-dollar public transit repair backlog is also being addressed in President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)—two of the biggest transportation bills of the decade.
The infrastructure bill touts $89.9 billion in guaranteed funding for public transit over the next five years, and aims to modernize systems while repairing “24,000 buses, 5,000 rail cars, 200 stations, and thousands of miles of track, signals, and power systems in need of replacement.”
The IRA is the United States’ first major investment in climate change mitigation, focusing on tax credits, loans, and grants, as well as “billions to modernize the electric grid, build a nationwide network of electric vehicle chargers, strengthen the battery supply chain, expand public transit and passenger rail.”
But climate experts and transit engineers agree that vehicle electrification is an inadequate response to both global warming and moving people around, which is why Bush has centered public transit in her legislative efforts.
St. Louis’s MetroLink is scheduled for a long-overdue North-South expansion, and in December of 2022, alongside fellow House Democrats, Bush introduced the Bus Rapid Transit Act and the Light Rail Transit Act, with the goal of transforming public transit in St. Louis and across the country to “make getting around our communities more equitable,” the representative said. The bills aim to jump-start new systems and improve existing programs while creating new jobs, reducing emissions, and improving connectivity.
While the Biden administration has made progress, global carbon emissions need to decrease by 45 percent by 2030 if we are to reach “net zero” by 2050, and the US transportation sector is the largest contributor to CO2 emissions. While US carbon output has fallen since the mid-2000s, it has not decreased as quickly as our European counterparts’.
Roads, highways, and car infrastructure continue to consume vast resources, as in Missouri Governor Mike Parson’s proposal to improve Interstate 70 to the tune of $859 million—made despite expert consensus that bigger roads and additional lanes only make traffic worse, and cement production requires massive CO2 emissions.
“I think we need a new era of enormous public investment,” Bush said. “If these crazy climate floods are possible, we have to imagine new possibilities for how we respond. We spend billions and billions on weapons of war, and act like it’s so hard to pay for trains.”