President Joe Biden signed into law a $1.9 trillion package on March 11, the third history-making relief bill passed during this pandemic to support hurting residents and stimulate local economies.
The latest legislation, known as the American Rescue Plan, included $1.7 billion for Bay Area public transportation.
Local transit agencies have yet to see any of it hit the bank.
Transit workers, riders and advocates from the Bay Area gathered Thursday at San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal to demand MTC allocate the funds immediately.
They said failure to do so hinders the ability of transportation agencies to hire operators, return service to pre-pandemic levels and reduce the number of passengers, many of whom are essential workers or people of color, who get passed by because of overcrowded buses.
“While you might not consider riders and transit workers stakeholders, we refuse to let you determine what is best for us,” Regina Islas, a daily rider of the 1-California bus, said on Thursday.
She then led a chant for the crowd: “Release our funds!”
Over the last year, MTC has disbursed roughly $2.3 billion in emergency transit financial aid to regional transportation agencies.
Randy Rentschler, MTC spokesperson, says these funds have successfully bolstered operating budgets and kept transit agencies afloat. No transit operator has told MTC it needs more money now.
“We speak to the operators every day on this subject. Nobody is holding anything back,” he said.
To date, the commission has yet to hold a public meeting discussing how and when it will disburse the third set of funds to the 27 regional transit agencies, though the Programming and Allocations Committee is set to have its first hearing on funding priorities on Wednesday May 12.
That’s because MTC is playing the long game, Rentschler said.
The longer it waits to distribute these funds, the better picture it has of what each of the transit agencies will need to endure the remainder of the pandemic and recover from it in the years to come.
“What we’re trying to do is find a consensus to allocate these funds to make everybody happy, not just one of the 27,” he said. “Everyone wants to make sure that when we distribute this money, which is likely the last time, that it accurately reflects the situations of all operators.”
Bay Area agencies have made widespread service cuts to survive the COVID-19 pandemic.
BART and Caltrain are running at lower frequencies and shutting stations early, leaving many shift workers without transportation when traveling to or from work. Muni is running at only 70 percent of its pre-pandemic service hours and continues to see crowded buses on routes known to carry concentrations of essential workers and transit-dependent riders, which means many of those same passengers are being left at the curb.
MTC’s responsibility now is to make sure each agency has money to weather the damage wrought by COVID-19 and its fallout for as long as it lasts, Rentschler said.
By contrast, transit advocates directly tie hampered service and the slow pace of operator rehiring to MTC’s delay in providing the American Rescue Plan funding. They say austerity budgets mask the racist outcomes of a transit system that leaves low income residents, often people of color, with unreliable or infrequent service and lengthy travel times.
“True economic efficiency means an economy that serves the people and not the people that serve the economy,” Jovanka Beckles, an AC Transit board member, said at Thursday’s rally. “This is an opportunity for them to show us whose side they’re on.”
Here in San Francisco, officials have made clear that the economic crisis facing the Municipal Transportation Agency will not be short-lived. Muni has been particularly hard hit by the decimation of downtown commuter travel and declining sales tax revenues citywide, among other things.
Jeffrey Tumlin, SFMTA Director, said as recently as Wednesday that the agency will need to spread out money from the American Rescue Plan over the coming years until it figures out how to close the structural deficit that existed even before the pandemic.
“We will not have recovered next year,” he said of the need to make the money last beyond just the typical two-year budget cycle.
An MTC committee will meet next week to start the process of divvying up the American Rescue Plan money in a way that guarantees at least current levels can be sustained and then grown to support increasing demand, according to the staff report.
Rentschler urged patience and confidence that the “very difficult operating environment” is likely coming to an end for many of the Bay Area’s nearly two dozen transit agencies, though he did caution that BART and Muni will likely have a harder time recovering due to their sheer size and reliance on downtown traffic.
Advocates at Thursday’s rally said they’re tired of being told to wait, and speakers repeatedly emphasized their stance that there is no economic recovery without robust transit.
“Understand this fact: fully restored public transit is the essential underpinning of our full economic recovery,” Islas said. “Those two things are inextricably linked.”