$14 billion for transit in second federal coronavirus relief package is a start, officials say

Bay Area leaders grateful for funding, but a ‘long-term, sustainable’ revenue source still needed

The $14 billion for transit agencies included in the latest federal relief bill is a near-term lifeline, but it doesn’t go far enough to fully resolve the dire budget challenges faced by local transportation agencies, according to Bay Area officials.

Regional agencies, part of a coalition of peer transit providers from around the country, had called on Congress to provide $32 billion specific to transit relief. This package falls far short of that, and stands to help public transportation agencies close some of their budget gap, but not all of it.

Jeffrey Tumlin, who leads the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority, said at a Dec. 15 board meeting that anything less would be enough to “allow us to continue struggling along at current service levels, ideally without layoffs, but it is not sufficient funding to really have a recovery.”

A statement issued today from SFMTA in response to the relief package echoed this sentiment.

“Even with these funds, we will likely have to continue to tap into our rainy-day reserves to balance the budget,” it said. “A long-term sustainable funding source will be necessary to even maintain current service levels, consider restoration of critical service and provide the system that San Franciscans expect.”

Approved Sunday, the relief package will send $14 billion to transit agencies across the country, though it’s unclear how it will be distributed between regions. What is clear, though, is that the agencies will continue to lobby for more support under the next presidential administration.

“The new federal relief is a shot in the arm for Bay Area transit that helps maintain service for essential workers and people making essential trips,” said Paolo Cosulich-Schwartz of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway & Transportation District. “We look forward to working with a new Congress and Biden administration to secure additional funds for public transit in the new year.”

When the CARES Act was signed in April, the Bay Area received $1.3 billion of the total $25 billion transit allocation. That lump sum was then divided up among the various regional agencies by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

It awarded BART the most support, a total of $377 million, with SFMTA close behind at $373.8 million. Other agencies that operate in San Francisco such as the Golden Gate Transit District and Caltrain received $30 million and $64 million, respectively.

That money has since been used to balance the budget for the 2019 – 2020 fiscal year and keep agencies afloat in the current fiscal year by giving them funding to run day-to-day operations, keep workers on the payroll and purchase supplies necessary for more stringent sanitation procedures.

However all Bay Area agencies say the CARES Act money will run out by the end of December. Meanwhile, with ridership stagnating at woefully low levels and continued local stay-at-home orders, the agencies are facing severe deficits for the next two-year budget cycle.

Adequate help from Washington D.C., according to transit officials, is the only way to resuscitate transit agencies and, therefore, boost the recovery of major cities across the country.

“Recovery of urban economies is fundamentally dependent upon transit’s continuance, Tumlin said at the Dec. 15 board meeting, as he called on Congress to recognize the “critical importance” of transportation agencies.

Whatever money the Bay Area gets in this second relief package would again be distributed by the MTC.

This time, though, the funding could be the difference between whether an agency continues with plans to cut staff or service in order to balance their budgets over the next two fiscal years.

SFMTA announced it could lay off as many as 1,226 employees by next fiscal year; BART plans to offer retirement incentives to as much as 40 percent of its workforce and has contemplated cutting weekend service; and Golden Gate Transit District voted last month to eliminate a total of 205 positions.

These compromises end up disproportionately hurting low-income residents and essential workers who depend on transit for trips to work, medical visits or other life-giving destinations such as the grocery store or pharmacy, officials say.

For now, most agencies are saying they’ll wait to see how things play out before making further determinations about how the relief could influence their future plans.

“We are grateful for the short term funding relief. We will work with MTC on the local funding allocation,” BART spokesperson Alicia Trost said. “We will provide more details once we have a better understanding of what BART’s share will be.”

Public transportation agencies aren’t the only mobility-related groups getting help with this bill.

Airlines will receive $15 billion to help pay workers, state highway programs will get a specific allocation of $10 million, and Amtrak will see $1 billion.

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