Pandemic Fiscal Stimulus Response: Transit
The media has been full of stories since the onset of the coronavirus about the impact on transit. Most systems lost most of their ridership, partly in response to fear of being in close quarters but also because stay at home orders meant that knowledge workers could work at home, avoiding the need to commute--and commuting to work and school provides the bulk of transit ridership.
-- "‘An end to the New York way of life’: MTA proposes catastrophic service cuts amid COVID-19 budget crunch," New York Daily News
-- "COVID-19 Has Been 'Apocalyptic' for Public Transit. Will Congress Offer More Help?," Time Magazine
-- "‘We’re Desperate’: Transit Cuts Felt Deepest in Low-Income Areas," New York Times
-- "Public Transit Officials Fear Virus Could Send Systems Into ‘Death Spiral’," New York Times
-- "Transit systems in free fall beg for federal help over coronavirus," NBC News
-- "As recovery bills languish, transit systems cut service," Roll Call
Surprisingly, transit doesn't seem to be a primary risk factor for getting the coronavirus ("Studies Show Riding Transit During Pandemic Is Pretty Safe," Streetsblog USA). Even so, people are fearful, and ridership is off anyway and great numbers of people are teleworking. Systems have also spent more money on cleaning surfaces, although it appears that fomite transmission is not high, and this may be a form of "pandemic theater" aimed at reassuring people.
The second coronavirus stimulus package as passed by the House of Representatives was to provide support to state and local governments, including transit agency, but the Senate under Republican rule never took up the bill.
From the Roll Call article:
Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago are among other systems eyeing cuts, according to Paul M. Skoutelas, president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association.
His association has estimated that transit agencies will need $32 billion to stay afloat. They received $25 billion in the $2 trillion stimulus bill passed in March, but they quickly exhausted it as the pandemic dragged on.
A second aid bill that passed the House in May included $15.75 billion for transit. That bill went nowhere in the Senate.
The latest proposal, advanced Tuesday by a bipartisan group of senators led by Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., would also set aside $4 billion for airports, $1 billion for Amtrak and $8 billion for the motorcoach industry, which has asked for federal help for months, most recently in a plea to congressional leadership sent Monday.
So many agencies are on the ropes, because they've lost 80% or more of their ridership, and the same or a greater percentage of their fare revenue, which is key to annual operating budgets and system finance.
The crisis is particularly pronounced for the large systems, which have lost hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue. It's less pronounced for smaller transit systems--they've still lost the bulk of the ridership, but their systems tend to be pretty small, mostly bus based, maybe with some light rail, so their financial needs are comparatively smaller.
So transit agencies been cutting service in the current budget year, and service cuts proposed for next year are severe and catastrophic. And given the similar stresses to local government budgets because of the pandemic, transit agencies can't look to local or state governments to bail them out.
The biggest systems, in NYC, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington have proposed massive cuts and/or fare increases for the next year.
DC's transit agency has just proposed drastic service cutbacks including (1) shutting 19 subway stations; (2) discontinuing weekend subway service altogether; (3) severe cutbacks in frequency of service and closing earlier at night; and (4) major cutbacks to the bus system.
-- "Metro plans for deep service cuts and layoffs without more federal aid," Washington Business Journal
-- "Metro riders fear the transit system may never recover if proposed cuts are enacted," WUSA-TV
-- "Metro budget cuts weekend service, half of bus routes and closes 19 stations amid dire financial forecast," Washington Post
Boston's transit agency proposes cutting back on service hours, eliminating the ferry system entirely, ending weekend service on the passenger rail system, ending passenger rail service at 9 pm, and cutting many bus routes ("MBTA not alone in planning steep service cuts: Transit cuts seem likely to hit cities across the country without federal intervention," Boston Globe).
Conclusion: A stimulus package should prioritize maintaining transit systems, with commensurately greater support for the larger transit systems.
The renewed effort for a stimulus bill proposes $15 billion set aside for transit, which is less than half of the need.
And this is merely about maintaining transit systems, not about growth and opportunity for economic development as part of a "21st Century Domestic Marshall Plan," as outlined in a recent entry.
It shouldn't be for an inadequate amount, but the full $32 billion need as identified by the American Public Transportation Association.
Of course, this is a problem world-wide ("Transit systems across the globe face a Covid reckoning," Politico), in Canada ("Public transit's rough ride during the pandemic will reshape communities," CBC-TV), the UK ("The bailout of London's transport network shows we are not all in this together," Guardian), France, Japan ("JR East and JR West bracing for massive annual net losses," Japan Times), etc.
In countries run by conservative governments, like the US and UK, governments have been pretty uninterested in helping transit systems, and in the UK, have used the pandemic as a way to further bludgeon local Labour run governments ("Who’s to blame for TfL’s funding crisis? It’s not Sadiq Khan," New Statesman).