A sharp decline in ridership and revenue is forcing some of the largest transportation systems in the country to seek bailouts from the federal government as money dries up during the coronavirus pandemic.
Riders are staying away from many public transit systems, and a drop-off in sales tax revenues that fund some systems is adding to the financial burden.
At least five major transit systems — in Washington, New York, New Jersey, the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle — have all formally requested financial assistance from the federal government, some on the order of billions of dollars.
Congress appears prepared to deliver. The $2 trillion stimulus package is expected to include $25 billion for mass transit, the same amount for the struggling airline industry.
“The virtues of public transit are precisely at odds with coping with the pandemic. That is, it’s good at moving a lot of people in the same direction at the same time, and we now have essentially a mandate to not move, to not have a lot of people together anywhere,” Brian D. Taylor, author and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) professor of urban planning and public policy, said in an interview.
The core business model of public transit, according to Taylor, depends on “crowding people together” to bring riders where they need to go.
As demand plummets, so does rider revenue. And as the economy enters what could be a prolonged recession, so will the sales tax revenues that some systems use to bolster their service.
Peter Rogoff, CEO of the Seattle area's Sound Transit, said his agency relied on sales tax revenue for 58 percent of its budget last year.
“We are obviously, even without knowing what the future holds, are deeply concerned because of our very high dependence on sales tax,” Rogoff said.
He added that Sound Transit drivers have even stopped collecting fares “so that bus operators can have separation from passengers.”
Several Sound Transit bus operators have already tested positive for the coronavirus, highlighting the front line positions they hold in a society that is slowly shutting down.
Rogoff said his agency “may have to be sizing the amount of service we could provide to the public based on the availability and willingness of our operators and maintenance personnel and rail supervisors and such to come to work.”
“Having worked in the Senate, during a number of disaster supplementals, you know, we need Congress to think creatively on how we target resources to the agencies most in need,” said Rogoff, a former Senate Appropriations Committee aide.
Specific requests have already been made.
New Jersey Transit, which runs New Jersey’s bus, train and commuter rail systems, requested more than $1.25 billion in aid from its congressional delegation, according to a letter obtained by The Hill.
“We are currently looking at efficiencies, however, we cannot overcome the unprecedented financial burden this national emergency has created on our own,” wrote the agency's CEO, Kevin S. Corbett.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) in New York projected losses of almost $3.7 billion over the next six months. The MTA asked members of their state's congressional delegation for $4 billion in financial relief.
Lateefah Simon, the president of Bay Area Rapid Transit in San Francisco, said in a letter that her agency will see rapid drops in ridership in the coming months. A BART spokeswoman said that the agency has seen a 90 percent ridership decline and estimated $960 million in lost revenue in the next six months.
In the nation's capital, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) said ridership was off 85 percent as the virus spreads. Paul Wiedefeld, WMATA's chief executive, said the system is spending $17 million in additional funds to clean its vehicles and protect its employees and customers. He estimated WMATA would lose $52 million in lost ridership revenue in the coming months.
Other agencies said they have not asked for help yet, but that they would seek reimbursements for cleaning products they do not usually buy.
“This time last year, we were not discussing, we probably didn’t buy much, if any, hand sanitizer and now we’re literally buying it by the barrel,” said Adam Brandolph, a spokesman for Pennsylvania's Port Authority.
Brandolph said the transit system experienced at least a 50 percent decline in ridership as well.
Ridership on Phoenix's Valley Metro is down significantly too. That agency plans to ask for a federal bailout in the future, though details are not final, said Susan Tierney, the Valley Metro spokeswoman.
Experts said it is the sales tax revenue, and not the ridership revenue, that represents the hardest hit the transit agencies will take.
“Transit is a public service and it depends on federal, state and local money for far more than it does on the fares people pay,” said Martin Wachs, a former professor of urban planning at UCLA. “It is a public service that we must keep operating during the crisis because people who have no option other than transit need to shop for food and get to doctors’ offices and hospitals.”
“There is no avoiding the burden this will place on taxpayers," he added.