The South Bend, IN Amtrak station

The Importance of Public Transit

An ode to Amtrak.

Joe Biden, our President-Elect, estimates he has ridden more than two million miles on Amtrak trains in his life. As a fellow Amtrak rider, some of my journeys felt like they lasted two million miles each way.

In my time at Notre Dame, I considered myself very fortunate to have access to an Amtrak station in South Bend. The coach cabins were often hot enough to make me sweat in the middle of a Rust Belt winter. The trains typically arrived hours past-due. And the dining car’s hours were far from accommodating. But as a college student who could hardly afford the $5 cover at Feve, let alone to purchase a car of my own, I relied on the Amtrak route from South Bend to Syracuse for trips between my home and my university. Those overnight train rides are forever associated with the promise of joyful Thanksgivings and family reunions to come. On the best rides I was even blessed with friends to pass the time, some of whom joined me in Syracuse when they had nowhere else to go when classes let out.

There was a sort of solidarity among Amtrak passengers, especially around the holidays. Typically the other people in my car were young, often students themselves, or single parents traveling with children in their lap. We were all in it together, people without cars to call our own, further put off by the obscene markup on holiday plane tickets.

The South Bend, IN Amtrak station
The official designation of the South Bend Amtrak station is SOB, which feels too perfect. Photo credits Ryan Stavely.

In addition to the Amtrak station, there was a second train station in South Bend, operating out of South Bend’s airport. Known as the South Shore Line, with a route running from South Bend to downtown Chicago, this railroad was a blessing for college students desperate to escape a dull February weekend or who found themselves in possession of tickets to a concert in Chicago. For only $25 round trip, a savvy Notre Dame student could burst the Notre Dame bubble for a weekend, or avoid the unreliable Coach USA buses on their way to Chicago’s airports and beyond.

The South Shore Line, like Amtrak, is in its own way associated with some of my favorite college memories – ferrying me to the Shedd Aquarium for a fun Saturday afternoon or bringing me back to campus, the promise of syllabus week and adult life merely hours away. The South Shore also serves as a crucial connective tissue for residents of the greater Chicagoland region. If I found myself on the early morning or late afternoon train, I was often joined by commuters traveling between jobs in Gary or Chicago and their homes in small towns across northwestern Indiana.

A retro-style poster reading South Bend by the South Shore Line Ball Park to Millennium Park
The first poster I bought for my new apartment, sold by a South Bend artist on Etsy.

All of this is to say that access to public transit genuinely matters. We may be a nation of automobiles, but for millions of people in all fifty states, public transit systems provide daily connections to the workplace, a gateway to a weekend of fun, and enable those who otherwise may not be able to afford the trip to spend holidays with loved ones.

Which is why I was so disappointed to see the news this week that Pete Buttigieg is expected to be named as President-Elect Biden’s Secretary of Transportation. 

To those less familiar with Buttigieg, or Mayor Pete as he is widely known, it may seem surprising that a recent Notre Dame graduate would be disappointed to see the former South Bend mayor ascend to national office. It’s true that he was the mayor for the majority of my undergraduate career. It’s also true that he has, at first glance, an impressive résumé.

In June of 2018, well before he announced his campaign for the presidency, Buttigieg was the subject of a glowing feature by The New York Times. In the piece, his accolades stretched longer than a Friday afternoon Zoom call:

… a Democrat in a Republican stronghold; a high school valedictorian who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard and who also attended Oxford as a Rhodes scholar; a political comer who, after winning election at 29, quickly set about reversing an economic decline in this northern Indiana city, where the last Studebaker rolled off a South Bend assembly line in 1963; a Navy veteran who, in 2014, took an unusual leave-of-absence from his civic day job to serve a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Guy Trebay for The New York Times

With such an extensive list of achievements to his name, criticism of Buttigieg’s nomination may at first appear unwarranted. But when President-Elect Biden announced Buttigieg as his pick, much of the discourse focused on how Buttigieg’s experience as the mayor of South Bend signifies an understanding of the transportation needs of the average United States citizen. I fail to see the connection.

Besides Amtrak and the South Shore Line, South Bend has Transpo, the city’s municipal bus service. The agency is severely lacking in its ability to serve the South Bend community. In a 2009 report from the state of Indiana, Transpo reported just 60 buses in its fleet to serve a metropolitan area that is home to more than 300,000 people. As a former South Bend resident, the bus stops themselves were often inconvenient. Most stops only have pickups every half hour. There were no early morning options from Notre Dame’s campus.

My sophomore year, I had a mid-afternoon job interview. I needed to get to the South Bend airport in time for a 6:45 a.m. flight the company had booked for me. Rather naïvely, I assumed that since the South Bend airport is small and only hosts a few flights a day, Transpo would be aligned with the departing flight schedule. I was wrong. There was no early morning bus service to Notre Dame’s campus that would reach the airport in time for the first flight of the day. The taxi I booked the night before failed to show, and I would have missed the flight to the interview if the one early morning Uber driver in South Bend had taken that Friday off. If this singular instance of me having to naviagte the city in the early morning without a car was that stressful, imagine how South Bend residents with regular morning shifts must feel.

Then there was the cancellation of the Midnight Express Transpo route. The late night bus service from Transpo ran late into the night on Fridays and Saturday. Since Transpo is free with a valid student identification, it provided college students a safe (and free) way to patronize the bars of South Bend. It also linked the campuses of Notre Dame and St. Mary’s, a women’s college about a mile and a half from Notre Dame, preventing students from having to walk between the campuses in the middle of the night. This connection was especially valuable in the frigid winter months or to students who had been out drinking. Midnight Express was established in 2009 and funded not by the city government, but by the student governments of Notre Dame and St. Mary’s.

I would have expected that a man qualified enough to lead our national Department of Transportation would have understood why providing free bus rides to young, drunk students was a good thing for public safety. Instead, in the fall of 2019, while Buttigieg was off campaigning for President (and still mayor of South Bend), the Midnight Express line was canceled when Transpo raised the price it intended to charge to the student governments of Notre Dame and St. Mary’s by $30,000.

Now, students who wish to visit the bars downtown have to pay for private rideshares. As South Bend is a small city, there is a very finite number of Ubers and Lyft drivers available, often causing wild surge pricing or rides unavailable for long periods of time. I personally know multiple people who have walked back drunk from downtown to their dorm or apartment in the middle of the night. Transit to St Mary’s campus on weekend nights is now a similar story, although the college does offer an infrequent safe ride service of its own for St. Mary’s students.

This isn’t the topic I was hoping to cover today. While I fully expected Buttigieg to be nominated to some sort of federal position as a reward for dropping out right as Senator Bernie Sanders was gaining support in the polls, I never imagined it would be for a Cabinet position he was so wildly unqualified for. This is to say nothing of the international scandals his former employer, McKinsey, are involved in, or the way Buttigieg bungled relations between South Bend’s police department and the city’s Black community.

But it’s what I felt I needed to write about today. So I will say it again – access to public transit matters. It matters for the environment. It matters for people’s wallets. It matters for public safety. And we deserve a Secretary of Transportation with a proven understanding of how much their job matters to this nation.

Ben Testani
Ben Testani is a freelance writer and young professional. Though originally from Central New York, he is currently based out of Sacramento, California. He enjoys basketball, noise-cancelling headphones, and the National Parks Service.
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