Ridership has dropped drastically due to the Bay Area-wide shelter-in-place order. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Bay Area transit’s financial future hinges on $780 million emergency aid vote

Bay Area transit agencies may get a needed shot in the arm next week, as a regional body is set to approve $780 million in emergency funding.

Those federal funds are the first planned disbursement of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act approved by Congress last month.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission and more than a dozen agencies have seemingly concluded hashing out who gets what portion of that regional $1.3 billion pie, or at least, the first half of it. The aid is much needed as the COVID-19 pandemic has caused ridership — and revenue — to plummet at transit agencies across the region.

The MTC is set to vote Wednesday, April 22 on the $780 million federal aid package’s allocation.

Additional funding will be approved later this year, according to MTC.

“House Speaker Nancy Pelosi deserves enormous thanks for her leadership in ensuring that Congress included support for public transit in the CARES Act,” MTC Chair and Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty said in a statement. “These extraordinary times have seen extraordinary cooperation and the Bay Area’s transit operators have come together with MTC to meet the moment.”

The lion’s share of the stimulus funding would fill the coffers of San Francisco’s Muni service, BART, Caltrain, Alameda Contra Costa Transit, and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, among 24 total Bay Area transit agencies.

BART is set to receive the highest amount out of any transit agency in the first round of stimulus funds, with $251 million slotted for it. Muni is the next-largest beneficiary of stimulus funds at $197 million. The next highest-funded transit agency is AC Transit, with $80 million allotted.

BART declined to comment directly on the funding before the MTC takes its vote. SFMTA thanked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for her advocacy to obtain needed transit stimulus. Publicly, SFMTA leadership has said the agency is in dire financial straits.

Below is the proposed allocation of federal aid funding for Bay Area transit agencies, subject to vote by the MTC on April 22:

  • AC Transit $80,366,395
  • Altamont Commuter Express 2,680,453
  • BART 251,637,050
  • Caltrain 49,292,725
  • County Connection 7,067,680
  • City of Dixon 305,302
  • FairfieldSuisun Transit 2,002,985
  • Golden Gate Transit & Ferry 30,163,006
  • LAVTA 3,501,369
  • Marin Transit 5,438,809
  • Napa Valley Transit 2,701,734
  • Petaluma Transit 498,342
  • Rio Vista Delta Breeze 119,328
  • San Francisco Muni 197,190,672
  • SamTrans 28,519,037
  • Santa Rosa City Bus 2,493,979
  • Solano County Transit 2,590,800
  • Sonoma County Transit 3,014,482
  • SMART 10,375,471
  • TriDelta Transit 3,891,364
  • Vacaville CityCoach 488,659
  • VTA 73,023,596
  • WestCAT 2,218,204
  • WETA/S.F. Bay Ferry 12,529,212
  • TOTAL $780,841,629

“This is the thing that keeps me up late at night every night. Figuring out how do we get through how the health crisis is turning into an unprecedented financial crisis for our agency,” Jeffrey Tumlin, head of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, said in an online budget town hall on April 2.

He said SFMTA’s priority is to maintain its workforce so they can rebound when needed. The agency is looking to trim its budget any way it can.

Tumlin said SFMTA will see a $66 million operating budget deficit in its next fiscal year, which starts in July, if measures are not taken to shore up the budget. An operating budget differs from a capital budget, in that it covers everyday costs of running an agency, like salaries, whereas capital budgets are for infrastructure improvement costs, like construction. SFMTA’s capital budget faces a $22 billion need through 2045.

Muni has already cut service across The City, responding to the large number of drivers who have taken leave from the agency amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Only 17 Muni routes out of 89 are operating in San Francisco right now.

When asked how SFMTA would spend stimulus funding, Tumlin said SFMTA would lose about $200 million in the remaining months of this fiscal year, through June, and would use a “big portion” of it to prevent laying off staff, including operators.

“We’re probably going to be very rare among transit agencies without layoffs,” Tumlin said.

Above is an online SFMTA budget town hall video led by SFMTA Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin

SFMTA is partially funded by San Francisco’s general fund, in addition to the fares riders pay every day. But other transit agencies that depend primarily on farebox revenues “are going to have to make deeper cuts,” Tumlin said.

One local transit agency that mostly depends on farebox revenue is BART.

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 on April 9, as the San Francisco Examiner previously reported.

BART has adjusted service to respond to its declining budget and ridership, running trains every 30 minutes Monday through Friday and shutting down at 9 p.m. At their last public board meeting, the BART Board of Directors asked agency staff to come up with dire worst-case budget scenarios, so they could plan for the future.

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

joe@sfexaminer.com

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