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Public transit in the US is already underfunded. The pandemic has made it worse.

Transit officials in Boston, New York, and DC are reducing service, eliminating routes, and laying off employees to shrink budgets.

A Boston MBTA station, half-empty due to declining ridership in the pandemic. City transit officials are considering major service cuts to the network, despite public and political outcry.
David L. Ryan/Boston Globe/Getty Images

In the early days of the pandemic, public transit ridership dropped precipitously. Americans were urged to stay home, which prompted transit agencies to swiftly implement service cuts to match this declining demand.

Transit networks needed a financial lifeline. Fare money was drying up, and existing budget gaps were further exacerbated. Through the CARES Act in March, local agencies received $25 billion in aid — bailout money that was crucial to keep networks operating through the summer despite steep declines in revenue from riders, advertisers, and taxes as people stayed home.

The good news for mass transit is that the next round of coronavirus relief is probably coming. Under the latest bipartisan Senate proposal, the transportation industry would receive $45 billion in aid, distributed between airlines, airports, private buses, and transit agencies, for whom $15 billion has been earmarked. The bad news is, according to transportation experts and transit advocates, $15 billion won’t be nearly enough. Agencies will still have to reduce service, eliminate routes, and lay off employees to make ends meet.

That’s cause for concern, as economic recovery in major cities and their encompassing regions depend on mass transit to shuttle around office workers, students, tourists, and local residents. Once a vaccine is distributed, people’s old commuting patterns will ideally resume, and businesses are expecting to grow from the reactivation of social activity. What happens, then, when a transit network doesn’t have the budget to boost their service or accommodate an influx of passengers?

“All sources of transit revenue are down this year, and in some of the larger cities, this budget crisis is not only seen in devastating service cuts, but deferred maintenance, layoffs, and cutbacks that can have long-term problems,” said Ben Fried of Transit Center, a research and advocacy organization.

The American Public Transportation Association originally called for at least $32 billion in emergency transit funding, but as Mitch McConnell and his fellow Senate Republicans mull over the bipartisan proposal, it’s uncertain whether transit networks will receive any money at all: The Republican counterproposal doesn’t appear to allocate any funding for mass transit. That’s concerning to transit officials, who believe there’s no adequate substitute for federal action.

“Transit is going through a catastrophic moment, and it’s hard to overstate how challenging the threats are,” said Robert Puentes, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, an independent nonprofit think tank. “Federal money is urgently needed right now. The CARES Act money helped keep agencies afloat through the summer, and while the $15 billion in the current package is helpful, it’s not nearly enough.”

Transit advocates have reason to worry: Significant service cuts could trap agencies in a downward spiral. With less reliable service and shortened routes, more people will simply stop taking transit, which means less fare money will be brought in. As Matthew Yglesias previously wrote for Vox, “agencies will have no alternative but to respond to financial pressure by scaling back service … but cutting frequency makes a transit network much less useful, ensuring that ridership doesn’t bounce back even when restrictions on activity fade away.”

If emergency aid doesn’t arrive, it’s likely that transit networks will be stuck in a cycle of decline. “Once these cuts are triggered, it’s not an easy thing to bring back, at least in the next year,” Fried told me.

Raising fares significantly won’t solve the budget gap, either. Most major networks depend on ridership fares for a large chunk of their annual earnings, but higher prices can drive away commuters, many of whom would rather invest in cars or turn to ride-sharing. Local budgets are built around how much money officials think they can bring in every year, and the pandemic’s unpredictability has thrown projections off course.

For New York City’s MTA system, fares account for about 38 percent, or $6.2 billion, of its annual revenue. And while the system also earns money from tolls, taxes, government subsidies, and advertisements, the pandemic has similarly decimated those income streams as well. Los Angeles officials are projecting an 11 percent decline in sales tax receipts and about a 27 percent drop in grants from gas tax revenue since Californians are driving less overall, the LA Times reported.

These setbacks are arriving at a time when it’s actually politically popular to invest in transit services. Voters in the Bay Area overwhelmingly supported a measure that enacted a sales tax that goes toward funding the Caltrain system. In Austin, residents similarly backed a property tax hike to build and operate a new rail system, a transit tunnel, and expanded bus service.

A person walking on the Caltrain platform between two trains. Nick Otto/Washington Post/Getty Images

Local agencies are proposing major service reductions in next year’s budgets. In cities like DC, New York, Los Angeles, and Boston, officials are prepared to slash service, lay off workers, and delay maintenance projects. These measures coincide with America’s vaccine rollout timeline. By the spring, a sizable portion of the US population is expecting to be vaccinated. But transportation officials in places like Los Angeles aren’t sure when a full recovery to pre-pandemic ridership levels will resume and are planning for the possibility of further cuts.

One of the few exceptions is Chicago, which has yet to consider cuts or layoffs because officials are still operating under the assumption that stimulus money will arrive. However, the president of the Chicago Transit Authority maintains that the agency “absolutely must receive additional funding from Congress.”

These preemptive budget cuts could be devastating for economic recovery, experts say. “Transit and cities are so fundamentally interwoven together, and neither one can survive without the other,” Puentes said. “If we’re going to see national economic recovery in this country, we’re going to need public transit.”

Service reductions will likely drive away riders who can afford other means of transportation or who can avoid travel altogether. The drop in ridership has affected rail service more than bus and subway service. According to the American Public Transportation Association, rail line ridership is down 87 percent in New York City and Chicago and 93 percent in the Washington, DC, metro area — jurisdictions with a high number of white-collar workers. Meanwhile, total bus ridership has declined by 65 percent.

“These numbers show that people who do not have the ability to work from home are dependent on the bus,” said Puentes of the Eno Center for Transportation. “Before the pandemic hit, buses were going through a bit of a renaissance, where transit networks were modernizing them and cities were putting in lanes and traffic signals.”

These service cuts will predominantly hurt essential workers and low-income communities, who are reliant on mass transit. It’s crucial that cities understand there are choice riders and dependent riders, Puentes added, which are represented in the rail versus bus dichotomy. Transit is a lifeline not just for city residents and workers, but the business districts and social hubs that depend on foot traffic to bring customers to their doors.

“Some agencies have been better than others about where to reallocate service during the pandemic,” said Fried of the Transit Center. “They’ve taken steps to ensure that bus routes with high ridership are not seeing the worst of these cuts, and while that’s good, it only goes so far.”

Two riders stand waiting to board a bus on the loop in Chicago. Scott Olson/Getty Images

If bus frequency and reliability decrease over the next year, it will be challenging to win riders back once they’ve bought a car, for example.

Dwindling transit service in the United States is not a new problem. The coronavirus has only made the cracks more visible by worsening its finances. For years, local agencies have been under stress to reduce costs.

Federal, state, and local governments have spent decades failing to build good, useful public transit, according to Vice transportation reporter Aaron Gordon. It’s a result of many converging factors — poor transportation and housing policy, highway construction, political roadblock, urban sprawl — and the solution isn’t necessarily simple. Funneling money into a broken system might not resolve its most pressing problems, but without federal investment in public transit, America will further cement itself as a car-dependent society. It will be difficult to reverse track, while these policies continue to inconvenience low-income, essential workers who depend on mass transit.

Still, transit advocates think there’s cause for optimism under the Biden administration. “There will be a window coming up for a transportation and infrastructure package,” Fried said. “One of the precedents in the CARES Act was that transit agencies received operating funds from the federal government. If this becomes a precedent, we can use that money moving forward to invest in extra service.”

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