Ridership on BART and other transit agencies has dropped drastically due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Public transportation officials nationwide ask Congress for $32 billion

Local agencies say future uncertain without additional federal aid

Public transit agencies in cities nationwide are begging Congress to set aside funding for them in the next coronavirus relief package. Without it, they may not survive.

San Francisco is chief among them.

Facing millions of dollars in revenue loss over the next several years, local transportation leaders say without the injection of federal aid, they’ll be forced to make significant budget cuts that could threaten further service reduction and jeopardize the reliability of transit.

They are joining other cities across the country in lobbying for $32 billion to keep buses and trains running, enabling essential workers to continue getting to work during shelter-in-place and laying the groundwork for economic recovery.

“At its core, the economy cannot and will not recover without transit,” BART General Manager Bob Powers said during a national press conference Wednesday to urge congressional action.

Many city residents depend on public transit to get to work, health care facilities and school, and Powers emphasized the growing “mobility divide” that’s all but certain to emerge if movement is reserved for the wealthy who don’t depend on low-cost or free transportation services.

The CARES Act signed in March provided $25 billion to transportation agencies around the country. San Francisco’s BART and SFMTA received $377 million and $373 million, respectively. Caltrain received $53 million.

That kept the organizations afloat. The funds paid employee salaries, financed additional cleaning and sanitation procedures, and kept a skeletal network running.

But they’re close to drying up, stretched thin by the prolonged shelter-in-place mandate that’s ravaged ridership and reduced earnings from sales tax, parking fees and citations.

Months later, revenues continue to hover at record-breaking lows.

BART reports monthly losses of $40 million with a projected three-year total of $975 million, largely a product of the 89% decline in ridership.

SFMTA projects it will lose $568 million over the next four years. July ridership was down 69% compared to the same month last year.

Caltrain, already facing potential financial doom if a sales tax measure doesn’t make it to the ballot and win approval in November, projects a $71 million deficit in this fiscal year alone.

Without additional revenue streams, including federal support, both agencies expect their CARES Act funds will be tapped by the end of 2020, forcing them to gut their reserves just to maintain the bare-bone service currently provided.

BART currently closes three hours early, and runs trains every 30 minutes on a weekday instead of every 15 minutes. Caltrain recently increased its number of weekday trains to 70, compared to its pre-pandemic total of 96.

SFMTA scaled back service early on to direct limited resources towards essential workers and essential trips. It doesn’t anticipate restoring more than 70% of pre-COVID service hours for at least another six months, according to an SFMTA spokesperson.

This crisis emerges “at precisely the same time the cost of providing service is increasing, and just when transit services are needed most to support the economic recovery,” an SFMTA spokesperson said.

Words like “immediate” and “existential” were used at Wednesday’s virtual rally to describe the disaster facing nationwide public transportation agencies without help from Washington D.C.

Lawmakers have been in a stalemate over relief package negotiations for weeks, sparring over items such as unemployment insurance benefits, school funding and the U.S. Post Office.

The HEROES Act, passed by the Democratic House in May, included $15 billion for transportation funding, but it’s been held up in the Republican-controlled Senate.

A competing proposal from Senate Republicans includes $1 trillion in total relief, with no money explicitly set aside for transit.

Last week, 106 congressional representatives penned a letter to leadership advocating for a minimum of $32 billion to safeguard the future of public transportation.

How much funding the Bay Area would receive and how it would be divvied up between agencies remains unknown, but the Metropolitan Transportation Commission would oversee the process.

Agencies have rolled out extensive cleaning protocols, social distancing measures and safety requirements to ensure riders can feel healthy and protected, whenever they choose to return.

According to Powers, “we’re ready.”

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