BART ridership has plummeted to more than 90 percent below normal amid the coronavirus pandemic and shelter-in-place orders, though ridership levels seem to have plateaued. (Chris Victorio/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Plummeting Bay Area bridge traffic finally levels off

All told, weekday Bay Area traffic volumes are down by half, which has remained consistent from March 23 through this week.

The plummet in commuters driving across Bay Area bridges has seemingly leveled off.

That’s according to new data from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the oversight authority over bridge tolls.

The data may also show just how much of the Bay Area’s workforce is now working from home, and how many still make a daily commute for work amid the coronavirus epidemic.

All told, weekday Bay Area traffic volumes are down by half, which has remained consistent from March 23 through this week.

BART ridership, which has also dropped dramatically, continues to slowly tick down, though its drop has slowed.

On a typical March week in 2019, nearly 400,000 vehicles crossed Bay Area bridges managed by the MTC, including the Antioch, Dumbarton, San Mateo-Hayward, Richmond-San Rafael, Carquinez bridges, and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

“It probably goes without saying, but these declines in traffic volume around the Bay Area are absolutely without precedent,” John Goodwin, an MTC spokesperson, said in a statement. “This indicates hundreds of thousands of people each day are staying at home — or at least on their home side of the bay. From a public health perspective, this is good news indeed.”

This year, among a multi-county shelter-in-place order to protect against the spread of COVID-19, bridge traffic has dropped to anywhere between 187,000 and 197,000 total bridge crossings on any given weekday. It’s the halt of a plunge that began after that shelter-in-place order, which fell to 43 percent of bridge traffic after the first day, then finally settled at roughly 50 percent.

While the drop may be good news from a public health perspective, it is also a challenge for MTC as bridge toll dollars go towards the operation and maintenance of the bridges, seismic retrofits of the bridges, and transportation projects across the Bay Area aimed at taking cars off the road and putting people into sustainable transit like buses and trains.

Trains are also seeing challenges ridership and funding-wise.

BART saw its ridership tick down the week of March 2, down 24 percent on that Monday, 35 percent that Wednesday, and down to 50 percent of the usual ridership of its roughly 400,000-weekday rider trips on that Friday. Since the Bay Area-wide shelter-in-place orders were issued, its ridership has dropped by roughly 90-93 percent depending on the given day.

A much-needed federal stimulus package will bring $1.3 billion to Bay Area transit agencies, which MTC, BART and a bevy of transit partners are all negotiating how to disburse. For BART, that may bring a windfall as ridership, and the fares they spend, continue to plummet. But Alicia Trost, a BART spokesperson, said the agency doesn’t yet know how BART’s upcoming budget may shake out.

“Overall, budget staff feels it is too soon to know where revenues will land in terms of planning for the FY21 budget,” Trost said in a statement.

The leveling of Bay Area transit budgets presents a unique opportunity, however, BART Board of Directors member Janice Li told the San Francisco Examiner. Many transit dollars are spent on cars, an unsustainable mode of transit, she said.

Wiping the budget slate clean may let BART and other agencies rebuild their budgets from the ground up to prioritize transit, and low-to-moderate income people who need it.

“The way that our transportation budgets are don’t make sense. If you look at how (the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency) or any department of transportation, or federally, the way we fund transportation doesn’t match what our needs are,” Li said. “That was already the status quo.”

Now during the pandemic, every agency is watching agency budgets plummet, she said.

“The question we cannot answer in this moment right now is ‘How do we rebuild our budgets, so we can finally build the equitable transit system we want?’”

There’s an inordinate amount of money spent on cars, she said. “Now we can decide on how we decide that for the future. We’re making major decisions about what we do or do not fund. What do we need to stem the bleeding to provide essential travel right now?”

And that travel should focus on those who need it most, she said.

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