The Amalgamated Transit Union represents about 190,000 transit operators, most of them bus drivers. The union's members depend on a robust bus and transit system to keep their organization alive. But, as international president Larry Hanley will tell you, those transit systems also are essential to plenty of city dwellers, particularly those with lower incomes. Anyone who lives in a cheap suburb without a car probably depends on a government-funded bus service to get to work.
It drives Hanley crazy to hear lawmakers in Congress whine that it is impossible to raise taxes when local officials seem to have no problem raising transit fares. Hanley argues that increased transit fares make bus drivers de facto "curbside tax collectors." Commuters don't see fare increases as taxes, and they don't fight them as they might fight other local initiatives. ATU is trying to change that by launching a rider organizing campaign in each of its locals, asking commuters to petition city officials for transit systems (often buses) to get them from home to work and back easily without a car.
The campaigns are local, but they are driven by broad ideas about wealth distribution and workers and the role of transit in the economy. The union knows that without the riders, its own lobbying efforts aren't likely to go very far. After all, there are only so many bus and train drivers in the world.
Does it make sense to view transit fares as taxes? Are transit fares different from other "user fees" like gas taxes? If so, how? What should transit riders expect in return for their fares? Do transit riders shoulder a disproportionate burden of the cost of maintaining buses and railways? What is a fair price for an easy mass transit commute?