Negotiations in Washington D.C. are predictable only in their unpredictability, leaving Bay Area transit agencies in a perpetual state of wait-and-see when it comes to learning what help they’ll receive from the federal government to survive the coronavirus pandemic.
Rather than pin their expectations on the fleeting chance of bipartisan agreement, local officials have turned their attention toward a different, perhaps equally audacious, hope: a presidential election.
In discussions about budgets, recovery timelines and ridership projections, officials are focusing on the possibility of a post-election reality where Joe Biden wins and a cadre of newly-elected Democrats sweep Capitol Hill.
Together, those two forces could catalyze an optimistic future for transit, including a robust relief package with direct aid for public transportation as well as longer term investments in infrastructure and green energy.
“A President Biden would be much more supportive of climate goals and non-highway goals, and thus one would expect that there would be more funding and more support for biking infrastructure, transit and other kinds of innovative mobility services,” said Daniel Sperling, a professor and director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at University of California at Davis.
Biden, a noted Amtrak loyalist, has crafted a $2 trillion infrastructure plan for his first term that would deploy $2 trillion toward infrastructure during his first term. It would invest federal dollars in roads and bridges, water systems, universal broadband, reinvigorating the auto industry and growing green energy options, among others.
It would also provide any city with 100,000 or more residents — a bar San Francisco readily clears — with “high-quality, zero-emissions public transportation options” that create “good, union jobs and meet the needs of these cities,” such as light rail networks, improvements to existing transit and bus lines and pedestrians and cyclists infrastructure.
By contrast, Trump put forth a $1 trillion infrastructure plan during his successful bid for the presidency in 2016, but he’s failed to make good on many of those commitments and failed to move such major legislation through Congress at any point in the last four years.
According to reporting from the Washington Post, “federal investments on roads and bridges as a share of the economy have remained stagnant,” spending on water projects has “fallen to a 30-year low,” and the president has failed to “meet his 2016 promises to update and upgrade parts of the United States, including roads, ports and airports.”
Officials from Bay Area transit agencies agree that although regional congressional representatives, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, are the best mouthpieces for local interests and, as such, the first point of contact for advocacy on ensuring local transportation can survive, the priorities set at the top will make a difference.
“It is well known that Vice President Biden is a longtime transit rider, and we would look forward to working with a new administration on major transit and transportation infrastructure investments that get people back to work while combating our climate crisis,” Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District spokesperson Paolo Cosulich-Shcwartz said.
Lawmakers in Washington D.C. failed to pass another coronavirus relief package this week, which means families, businesses and entire industries continue to go without critically needed support.
The CARES Act, signed in March, provided $25 billion directly to transportation entities nationwide. Of that, Bay Area agencies received a total of $1.3 billion paid out over two installments.
The cash has been used to pay employee salaries, finance additional cleaning and sanitation procedures and keep a skeletal network running. But that money’s soon set to vanish as local ridership continues to hover at historic lows.
Local transit agencies say a bailout from the federal government is absolutely critical to their ability to provide service to essential workers and transit-dependent riders. Nationally, public transportation officials have banded together to ask for at least $32 billion in emergency stay alive.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency received $373 million in CARES Act funding, which it says will have been used entirely by December.
“With the extent of our financial crisis, federal leadership is crucial to our efforts to increase urban transportation investment,” SFMTA spokesperson Kristen Holland said. “Without additional federal or state support, all Bay Area transit services will face major cuts next year.”
BART was able to finagle its budget so that it could extend the length of coverage by the CARES Act funding through the end of March, as opposed to the end of the calendar year as first anticipated, but it would need an influx of funding thereafter. A fellow rail network, Caltrain, will use all its federal funds before the end of the year.
The Golden Gate Transportation District will exhaust its CARES Act funding by mid-November.
Cosulich-Schwartz estimates it needs at least $50 million to avoid aggressive cost-cutting measures, including layoffs.
“How long we maintain our current staffing and service levels depend on if, when, and how much we receive in additional federal support,” he said. “We will be running out of CARES Act funding soon, so time is of the essence.”
It’s believed by most that the passage of sweeping relief before Election Day on Nov. 3 is all but impossible, with months of partisan fights leaving a graveyard of near-attempts and half-baked bills from either side of the aisle in their wake.
The HEROES Act, which included $15 billion for transportation funding, was passed by the Democratic House of Representatives in May, but held up by the Republican-controlled Senate.
Holland said this bill “would provide a second federal stimulus to keep urban transit functioning, but the Senate leadership has until now refused to consider it.”
Those same Republican senators passed a $500 billion relief bill in September, which included no funding for transportation, that was promptly nixed by their Democratic counterparts on the grounds that it didn’t go far enough.
Sperling was quick to say that “throwing money” at transit agencies won’t solve the challenges of declining ridership and escalating costs public transportation faced around the country even before the pandemic. He said its future is contingent upon a response that combines, in some way, financial relief with a commitment to improve transit so it can provide “more and better service in a more cost-effective way.”
When asked if he thinks a Biden administration would be a likely partner in that effort, Sperling answered that he “hopes they would and believes they should.”