Columnist Marty Nathan: Stand up for the environment — and for the grandkids

  • FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2016 photo, an Amtrak Acela train travels along the shore where people are fishing in Old Saybrook, Conn. The Federal Railroad Administration dropped the proposal from the latest version a master plan, released Wednesday, July 12, 2017, to rebuild the congested Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C., over the next 30 years. The federal government is rethinking the construction of new high-speed railroad tracks through parts of Connecticut and Rhode Island after complaints that the project would devastate neighborhoods, marshlands and tourist attractions. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File) Michael Dwyer

Published: 8/3/2017 9:01:39 AM

As most folks of a certain age will tell you, grandparenting is an unexpected joy. Parenting was a slog, particularly during my single-working phase. I always felt that I didn’t have enough to give to a little one who needed more than I had ever anticipated. But grans are supplementary — we can do what we want, rest when we need, and be appreciated by all, usually.

And we have the time and experience to mull over the intergenerational bonds and responsibilities. Because the little buggers are not such a burden, we are able to appreciate our grandchildren’s developmental achievements and growing wisdom. Our little buggers are one and three years old. I am grateful to have lived this long and experienced this emotional luxury.

But of course, I ponder the collision of my babies’ spectacular growth with our generation’s abandonment of global responsibility for a livable biosphere and just human relations. I know, I know: Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and before them W., Newt Gingrich and the rest were and are the Deniers- and Destroyers-in-Chief. But many of us knew the consequences and were unable to prevent the wholesale onslaught on the planet’s resources and people that has occurred in the last thirty years.

Grandpa and I make our trips to suburban Maryland from Northampton by rail. We take the Amtrak to DC and then the Metro to Kensington. We don’t sweat traffic or fear airplane crashes, delays or hassles. We have enough legroom and our carbon footprint is lower than the drive (even in our Prius) and seven times lower than an airplane flight. I am writing this piece as our train passes through Baltimore.

Amtrak and public transit — rail and bus — is way underused by passengers and, compared to environmentally profligate air travel, way under-subsidized. The “private” airlines have received hundreds of billions in federal tax dollars over the last century, not counting the free technology and training provided by the military.

Back to my musings on the train: For the survival of those little ones I am visiting, we must drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions now. Thus, we should be investing public money into the least carbon-wasteful modes of transportation, a sector responsible for 27 percent of the total carbon we Americans spew into the air. Ultimately, our trains and cars should be electrified and run from a grid powered by wind and solar.

Yet Trump’s 2018 budget proposes cutting passenger rail subsidies nearly in half. The National Association of Railroad Passengers, has warned that the budget “wipes out funding for long-distance train service in over 220 cities and towns and in 23 states that will lose train service completely.” Ironically, almost all those states are in the middle of the country and voted for Trump.

At the moment Congress has indicated it will reverse the Trump Amtrak threat. But facing the climate crisis, we should be investing billions more in raising U.S. rail ridership from the measly 17.2 billion passenger-kilometers to something closer to the European Union’s near-400 billion passenger-kilometers. In the absence of federal leadership, California is taking the climate-expedient course by building a high-speed rail connector for its major cities. Massachusetts should follow suit.

Anyone who has ever taken a bus in Western Mass knows how badly regional public transit needs an upgrade for it to become truly operative as a commuter option. The American Society of Civil Engineers in its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card gave U.S. public transit as a whole a “D-minus” as one of the categories among the country’s overall “D-plus” infrastructure system. “Despite increasing demand, the nation’s transit systems have been chronically underfunded, resulting in aging infrastructure and a $90 billion rehabilitation backlog.”

Trump is active, of course, in perpetuating this strangulation of public rail and bus. His new budget blocks “New Starts,” Obama’s program to invest in needed public transportation expansion programs.

But a state budget crisis was the point at which the rubber met the road for the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority. Despite ongoing growing need, the PVTA has been level-funded for years. And this year, as part of the budget reconciliation to deal with Massachusetts’ decreased tax revenue, the governor cut the budget from an already insufficient appropriation, causing the PVTA to cut routes and schedules.

The first to resist were UMass students who were staring at elimination of the buses necessary for their trips to classes. However, the cuts would have meant the curtailing of trips from Northampton-to Holyoke and Springfield and made it even harder to get around in Valley cities for those without a car.

Poor and working people ride the bus. I know because I ride the bus. This is not just a climate issue. It is a justice issue affecting those who can least afford it.

What is to be done? Join the resistance to the PVTA cuts. Contact Jobs with Justice, which is leading a riders coalition to stop the cuts, at But a little longer-term, support the Millionaires’ Tax 2018 Ballot Measure that would take from the 1 percent to invest in those things that the 99 percent genuinely need, including public transit.

Finally, demand of each of your legislators on every level a long-term commitment to massive expansion and electrification (produced by rapid investment in renewables) of our publicly-owned buses and trains. Please do it for our children and grandchildren.

Marty Nathan, M.D., is a mother and grandmother living in Northampton and working at Baystate Brightwood Health Center. She is on the steering committee of Climate Action NOW.

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