By Eli Walsh
BART will be able to maintain its current service level through at least mid-2025 due to federal emergency funds, even if its ridership remains flat, according to the transit agency’s budget officials.
While the transit agency’s long-term financial outlook remains bleak, BART budget officials said Thursday that a recent allocation of $271 million in federal relief funding will push the agency’s projected fiscal cliff from mid-2024 to September 2025.
BART has received some $1.5 billion in federal relief funds since the COVID-19 pandemic began. BART budget officials said last month that the agency was using roughly $25 million per month from that relief funding pool to maintain its current operating schedule and staff size.
“Though this one-time funding will not solve our long-term ongoing financial deficit … we do want to emphasize how grateful we are for this continued and necessary financial support,” BART Budget Director Chris Simi told the agency’s Board of Directors.
While BART’s weekend ridership has begun to reach half of its pre-pandemic levels, weekday ridership has continued to hover around 30-35 percent as Bay Area continue working remotely, hindering the agency’s fare revenue.
BART officials project ridership to return to just 70 percent of its pre-pandemic levels by the 2026-2027 fiscal year.
As a result, the agency is projected for annual deficits ranging between $112 million and $174 million at the end of the decade and at the start of the 2030s.
“A $112 million deficit in (fiscal year 2026) cannot be closed without some form of service cuts or impacts to our capital program,” Simi said. “It’s simply too high a percentage of our budget to trim back.”
Simi said the agency intends to reduce its projected deficits for the 2026 fiscal year and beyond by roughly $23 million per year via targeted spending reductions and potential revenue increases, although where that revenue may come from remains up in the air.
BART officials said last month they have begun the exploratory phase of putting a revenue-generating ballot measure in front of voters in the coming years, most likely in November 2024.
The Metropolitan Transportation Commission has also considered a funding measure that would support transit agencies in all nine Bay Area counties.
BART officials also plan to move to a two-year budget process in response to the financial instability, arguing that presenting a two-year budget outlook each year will enable the board to make better financial decisions.
Board Director Rebecca Saltzman said she hopes the agency can expand service during “off-peak” hours in its upcoming budget for the 2022-2023 fiscal year, citing that the return of weekend ridership has outpaced weekdays.
“I’ve gotten a lot of constituent complaints about this – people trying to get to the airport, people trying to get to an event and they’re just finding that the service isn’t enough and they feel like they don’t want to take BART on weekends or at night,” she said.
BART budget officials are expected to issue their preliminary budget memo for the 2023 and 2024 fiscal years this week.