ROCHESTER — A little more than a year ago, Carmen Rivera gave up her car and began using public transportation to get to her job downtown.
In anticipation of her change in lifestyle, she had moved to the University Avenue-Culver Road neighborhood because it was on a bus line and near a grocery store. Despite those preparations, Rivera has encountered many challenges in relying on buses as her only mode of transportation. Among the challenges have been having to wait for her bus during the winter in unheated shelters, which often lack schedules, she said. In her experience, buses have also varied from their schedule, causing her to miss her bus home and have to wait longer for another.
"If it was a positive experience and more accommodating, it would be a great value to take the bus and a lot more people would take the bus," noted Rivera, who spends about $10 a week on bus rides instead of the $40 or more a week she would have spent on gas, auto insurance and other car-maintenance expenses.
The Rochester Regional Genesee Transportation Authority charges $1 per bus ride and provides transportation for about 17 million customers per year — marking the highest ridership level in 20 years, according to information at www.RGRTA.com.
Rivera was among nearly 30 people who attended a transportation "town-hall" style meeting organized by the New York State Transportation Equity Alliance, which is a coalition of more than 50 state groups and organizations calling for federal policies to increase transportation options, reduce congestion and greenhouse-gas emissions, and improve overall environmental conditions. The alliance includes local groups such as Reconnect Rochester.
"We’re trying to help people get to where they need to go without a car," said Peter Fleischer, executive director of Empire State Future. "That’s the essence of our goal."
The meeting took place Feb. 17 in anticipation of a congressional hearing that had been set for Feb. 18 but was subsequently postponed. Historically, the majority of federal transportation funding has gone to highway and bridge projects, while efforts to improve public transportation and pedestrian and bicycle paths have taken a back seat, said Ya-Ting Liu, a federal advocate for the Tri-State Transportation campaign, which is part of the equity alliance.
But the impact of not addressing public transit, pedestrian and cyclist needs is huge, especially for lower-income populations that rely heavily on those modes of transport, Fleischer said.
"If you can’t get around, you can’t do the things you need to live, work and shop," he added. "A car costs a lot of money. … Plus it pollutes and wastes energy."
By conducting gatherings in cities throughout upstate New York, as the alliance is planning to do, residents and groups can make connections with each other to create a stronger voice in advocating for policy changes at the state and federal levels, said Fleischer.
Advocating for better public transportation is also part of the diocesan public policy campaign, "Working out of Poverty," noted Ruth Putnam Marchetti, justice-and-peace coordinator for Catholic Charities in Livingston, Wayne and the Finger Lakes counties.
Marchetti said she attended a meeting RGRTA conducted in the fall and presented materials in support of expanding routes to outlying, rural areas and expanding the bus system’s evening and weekend schedules, which would improve access to health care, employment and educational opportunities for Catholic Charities clients.
"We see firsthand the importance of public transportation for low-income people, the elderly and persons with disabilities," stated a letter from Catholic Charities to the Genesee Transportation Council, which oversees transportation planning for the Genesee-Finger Lakes region including Genesee, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario, Orleans, Seneca, Wayne and Yates counties.
"In many ways, the counties served by the Genesee Region Transit Authority are very well-served," the letter states. "We encourage you to incorporate cross-county routes, non-traditional schedules and affordability for services that deviate from the main thoroughfares as well as transfers between the systems."
Rivera said she would prefer that more federal funds be directed at expanding bus routes, enhancing service and supporting alternative transportation modes.
"How many times are you going to tear up the same road?" she asked rhetorically. "I’m glad people are taking this on."
Liu said conversations about transportation priorities bubble to the surface every six years when the federal transportation bill comes up for re-approval. The current bill includes $286 billion in funding, of which 80 percent is allocated to highway and road maintenance, she noted.
"Frankly, our transportation bill hasn’t changed in 50 years," Liu said. "What are we getting from our federal transportation bill? There’s a lot of spending. But what is our vision? What are our goals?"
She asserted that those goals should be reduced highway congestion, cleaner air and more reliable transportation alternatives.
The House of Representative Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure held several listening sessions across the country last month to get input on improving and streamlining transportation programs. According to the subcommittee’s website, that input will assist the subcommittee as it works on long-term legislation.
Members of the alliance do not dispute that the nation’s infrastructure is aging and in need of repair, so Liu said another avenue that should be explored is "green" construction that uses recycled materials and incorporates use of the road for other modes of transportation besides cars. Legislation proposed by President Barack Obama has been getting a lot of praise from public transportation allies because it seeks to improve the nation’s infrastructure while also doubling transit funding, investing in high-speed rail and boosting land use planning, she added.
In a significant symbolic move, the president renamed the highway trust fund as the transportation trust fund, Liu noted.
The alliance also supports state legislation, called "Complete Streets," which proposes that bike lanes be added to roads as they are redesigned. For New York, this legislation is a matter of safety, said Liu. According to information from the alliance, state lawmakers allocate to pedestrian safety only 1 percent of the federal transportation funding New York receives. Pedestrians, however, accounted for more than 25 percent of all traffic deaths in New York in 2009, according to http://dmv.ny.gov/statistic/2009nysaccidentsummary.pdf,
Bonnie Canaan, who like Rivera gave up her car to ride the bus in Rochester, said one of her biggest concerns is that the people who most need to know about these issues do not attend hearings like the one sponsored by the alliance.
As a result, she said local advocates need to do a better job of going out into city neighborhoods and educating residents about the importance of speaking out about these issues. They also need to build community support for meeting the needs of users of other transportation including bicyclists and pedestrians, Canaan said.
"There’s a division of community around these issues that needs to be addressed," she added.