BART is uncertain how quickly riders will come back once shelter-in-place restrictions are lifted. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

BART’s coronavirus fear: Even after pandemic, not all riders may come back

Agency struggles to plan for an uncertain future

BART ridership is down 94 percent, as of this week. But that’s not the scary part for BART leaders.

An even larger looming threat to the agency’s long-term financial health will come after the COVID-19 shelter-in-place is lifted.

Will those riders all come back?

That question is vital to the continued strength of BART’s workforce; hiring freezes, elimination of vacant positions, wage deferments and the elimination of some wage increases are all on the table for the coming year.

The agency is losing $9 million weekly, and will end its current fiscal year with a $170-180 million budget shortfall, staff said at a regular BART Board of Directors meeting Thursday.

The next fiscal year begins in July, and the budget must be reworked before then. To do that, they’ll have to make their best guesses at when riders will return.

“Nothing in our playbook guides us on what we’re seeing right now,” Pam Herhold, BART assistant general manager, told the board. “Transit ridership will be under long-term pressure.”

Even now, BART has adjusted service to respond to plummeting ridership, running trains every 30 minutes Monday through Friday, shutting down at 9 p.m., and increasing how often BART train cars are cleaned and sanitized. But the agency is now planning for the future.

BART staff crafted three different scenarios — low, medium, and high — to project how low ridership will be in the coming months and help guide their budget decisions.

Just how deeply will the agency have to cut? The rosiest scenario at BART sees ridership recovering in June, and leveling off at 80 percent of ridership by April next year. The worst-case scenario shows the ridership slump continuing at least through July, and only rising to 50 percent of its usual 411,000 daily rider trips by January, finally reaching 70 percent of system ridership next June.

Though BART will be awarded some amount of a federal stimulus package, which for the Bay Area region’s various transit agencies totals $1.3 billion, board members asked staff take an even more conservative approach to its ridership projections, as needed state funds are looking increasingly unlikely as resources go to first-responders, agency staff said.

“We’re wondering if the ridership projections for next year, the low scenario, was low enough,” Rebecca Saltzman, a BART board director, told the San Francisco Examiner.

Staff committed to creating more ridership scenarios, and the BART Board is scheduled to consider the agency’s budget in June.

Board President Lateefah Simon noted the agency is “looking at data every day. We have no idea what next week is going to look like,” but, she added, “We do want to see a worst case scenario.”

Perhaps the worst case scenario looks something like the experience of BART rider Scott Owades.

The Examiner asked readers on social media to weigh in on if they’d ride BART after the Bay Area-wide shelter-in-place order was lifted, and Owades said he might be persuaded to work from home more often — or perhaps, for good.

To read the responses to the Examiner’s Twitter question concerning BART ridership in full, click here.

“Used to ride BART or AC Transit daily from Oakland to SF. I’m telecommuting now and will get back to BART after,” Owades said on Twitter. But, “Life without a 50-minute commute has me thinking about a permanent telecommute.”

Of course, not all workers have the choice to telecommute. But even those who ride again may do so reluctantly due to lingering pandemic concerns.

“Too crowded and not convinced they could keep up with sanitizing,” said Lisa D. Gray. “I’ll have to eventually ride again but I’ll wait until absolutely necessary.”

BART rider Daniel Farina echoed those sentiments, and said, “I’ll seriously consider biking, maybe with a juiced up ebike, instead of taking (BART) until vaccination” is discovered and implemented. Usually, Farina rides the system from Daly City to Civic Center, but “right now I’m telecommuting.”

And some riders may themselves be out of work, an economic impact that will ripple into transit agencies budgets across the country. More than 16 million people filed for unemployment in the United States over the last three weeks, according to the New York Times, which BART staff referenced in its slide on ridership drops to the BART Board of Directors.

For some BART riders, childcare is keeping them home and out of train cars, as schools statewide are closed in order to run remote classrooms from a socially safe distance. Twitter user @andrewLsf said “I’m staying home to watch my daughter while her school is closed,” but, “I typically ride BART to and from work every day.”

Perhaps the greatest challenge for BART’s bean-counters, those making its budget, is preparing the agency not only for the worst, but for the best. Should ridership rebound, there is a concern that cutting too deeply may leave the agency ill-prepared to serve the Bay Area’s workforce.

That scenario is probably best exemplified in the hopes of BART rider and software engineer Joshua Davis.

Davis said he stopped riding BART because non-essential workers disobeying the shelter-in-place order is a misdemeanor. But, he added, “when the (shelter-in-place) is up & BART is open I’ll have the biggest smile on my face as I walk down the stairs to catch a train.”

joe@sfexaminer.com

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