Bay Area Public Transit Agencies Struggle to Survive the Economic Toll of the Covid-19 Pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on every aspect of day-to-day life, but one part people may not fully realize until it’s too late is the destruction the virus is inflicting on public transit and the health of workers and riders, according to local officials, unions and community organizations.

The loss of riders and revenue have led to what Bob Allen—a director of policy at nonprofit Urban Habitat—describes as an “existential crisis” for Bay Area transit.

But it’s more than existential, because as transit limps along under the weight of an airborne virus, its decline will have ripple effects to the economy, equity and the environment, Hayley Currier, of advocacy agency TransForm, says. “Public transportation is required for a green and just recovery,” she adds.

BART ridership now hovers around 50,000 people a day, or about 12 percent of its pre-pandemic level, recent agency reports show. In Santa Clara County, the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) saw an 80 percent dip in ridership once the shelter in place order took effect in March. And though it has ticked up slightly since then, the pandemic’s impact is likely to continue through the coming year.

But the revenue nosedive is not just from the loss of fares. It’s also because many agencies benefit from sales taxes, which have fallen sharply. Money from the federal CARES Act has mostly plugged the hole this year, but prospects for the next fiscal year, Currier said, are “glaringly terrifying.”

Now, an emerging coalition of local transit workers, riders and environmental organizations, known as Voices for Public Transportation, has ramped up advocacy.

Voices for Public Transportation originally formed to promote a progressive regional funding measure for public transportation, which they see as essential to racial and economic equity and climate health. That effort is now on hold while transit agencies struggle to survive.

Its first priority as the coronavirus descended upon the Bay Area was urging the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) to adopt strong regional health-and-safety requirements, which it did, to a degree. Now the group’s focus has turned to the funding crisis, while still pushing for more safety measures.

After months of public outreach and debate, the VTA board will vote Dec. 3 on its Draft 2021 Transit Service Plan, which calls for transit service at 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels starting in February. The plan initially projected to cut operating costs by an estimated $27 million compared to the year prior.

Fortunately for riders, the agency now intends to increase bus frequency for some of the most popular routes—at least for the time being. VTA officials announced the revised plan on Tuesday, though it remains unclear which lines will get more service, when the added buses will start or how it plans to foot the bill for more service.

“As the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic increase in severity and additional restrictions are implemented in Santa Clara County, VTA’s challenge is to remain responsive to public health mandates and current conditions while still providing safe and effective transit service,” the agency wrote in an update Tuesday. “As a result, VTA will pause efforts on advancing the Draft 2021 Transit Service Plan to focus on the more urgent and significant issue of passenger pass ups on existing service due to the mandate to provide six feet between passengers on board transit.”

Safety First

For months, the MTC has discussed ways to find money and avoid a death spiral of service cuts, but workers say it can’t come at the expense of safety. “Our members face ongoing exposure to Covid-19 on a daily basis, with a high probability of being a super-spreader,” Armando Garcia Barbosa, a member of the Amalgamated Transit Union, told the board at an August meeting.

The essential workers who depend on transit are also concerned. Carol Taylor represents Service Employees International Union Local 2015, whose members provide home health care and work in convalescent homes. “We have to assume every passenger is contagious,” she said during the meeting.

Early recommendations in MTC’s safety plan called for requiring a three-foot distance between passengers, as recommended by the World Health Organization. But many urged MTC to expand that to six feet, per the Centers for Disease Control and state of California.

Though masks are required on transit, not everyone complies, and local bus drivers have been assaulted by those they’ve reminded to wear a face covering, according to advocates, who have pushed for agencies to provide free masks and sanitizer.

When all was done, transit advocates racked up some wins—and some losses—in an online “dashboard” to score transit agencies’ safety performance. The social-distancing standard had been changed to six feet, but there was no mention of providing personal protective equipment to riders.

The MTC plan is still “not good enough, but it was an incredible victory,” Currier said. “They wouldn’t have written the plan if we hadn’t pushed.”

Randy Rentschler, director of legislation and communications for MTC, disagreed. MTC wrote the plan, he said, because, “we need customers to come back to public transit. We need to do everything we can [to get] people feeling confident riding public transit.” He conceded, however, that the advocacy “resulted in a better plan.”

The VTA board has since formally endorsed its own, stronger health and safety plan, frequent cleaning, personal protective equipment, face coverings, social distancing, ventilation and touchless fares.

Money Problems

For now, Bay Area transit agencies are getting by with money from the CARES Act, which gave MTC $1.3 billion to distribute. Next fiscal year, starting in June 2021, many agencies face budget deficits that could lead to “drastic service cuts and job losses,” Nicole Wong of environmental nonprofit Green for All said.

Though MTC could offer up a little more (about $500,000) from its CARES Act money, according to Executive Director Therese McMillan, the need ultimately dwarfs the available federal funding. The agency could also look at its own operating budget to find money, she said.

But Nathaniel Arnold, an AC Transit bus driver, said the agency’s operating budget is not as important as its control of “billions of dollars from numerous [state and federal] funding sources.” He and other advocates want MTC to redirect those funds to help transit agencies recover from the pandemic.

Monica Mallon, a Silicon Valley transit advocate, said transit riders would also benefit more from a focus on operating existing buses, rather than “big flashy capital projects” like extending rail lines.

In the end, however, everyone seems to agree that the regional commission doesn’t have enough money to bail out all the transit agencies. All players say they are committed to advocating for more funding for public transportation.

“That’s one of our primary jobs,” Rentschler said, but “it’s too early to tell” where the money will come from.

But soon, Mallon says, “We’re going to need new revenue. We’re going to need to focus on a green new deal for transit, to get the operators the money to dramatically increase transit and improve people’s lives.”

10 Comments

  1. Smallprint:
    – Reflects the EXCLUSION of CARES Act Funding received in August 2020 and additional ADA funding.

    – Total CARES Act Funding is $141.6M which is comprised of $72.9M in FY20 and the remaining $68.6M in FY21. $5.4M of the funding was used to bridge the budget gap in FY20.
    http://santaclaravta.iqm2.com/Citizens/FileOpen.aspx?Type=4&ID=9961&MeetingID=3163 (note 3 on both pages)

    Conclusion: The CARES Act funding had a balance of $110.3M ($141.6M-$5.4M-25.9M) as of September 30th.

    Question for VTA: What happened to the 110.3M? Did it go to the $200M/BART mile (total $1.265B) “Professional Services” account and, if so, why?

  2. Let the people who use it pay for it.
    Some people have left the area permanently because they can work remotely. Those jobs and people are gone.
    Now we have new, empty buildings and newly empty buildings.
    Concentrated housing contributes to the spread of disease and crime.

  3. This system was obsolete by the end of WWII.
    It sucks up some 80% of the public transportation funds that should be put into roads and busses that can go most any where. Park the trolleys, convert them into shelters for the homeless. Pave over the tracks we need the road space!

  4. “The agency also announced it would cease pursuing a reduction in the county’s social distancing requirements. VTA had advocated for a 3-foot social distance requirement on its busses and trains, a policy that drew criticism from transit operators.”
    if the folks that ride the buses and light rail were rich European Americans the social distancing requirement would be at least six feet it not more.
    Those of us who ride are predominately folks of color, Seniors and the working poor. To VTA we are expendable.

  5. According to Gov. Newsom it’s time to shut down everything (except his dinner parties). No money left to give mass transit.

  6. > VTA had advocated for a 3-foot social distance requirement on its busses and trains, a policy that drew criticism from transit operators.”
    if the folks that ride the buses and light rail were rich European Americans the social distancing requirement would be at least six feet it not more.
    Those of us who ride are predominately folks of color, Seniors and the working poor. To VTA we are expendable.

    Dear folks of color.

    Despite what you may have been told by white liberals, social distancing of six feet is NOT a white privilege, and blacks, Hispanics, and Asians DON’T have to sit three feet apart.

    It’s actually LEGAL and a CIVIL RIGHT to sit six feet apart.

    I myself have actually seen Asians sitting five feet apart when no one is looking.

    If a black or Hispanic sits three feet away from a white person, they COULD experience racism.

    Sitting six feet apart is a way to fight against racism.

  7. HARDTOBEAMODERIGHT,
    Come-On-Man! Didn’t you just get a free Obama Car? Why are you still riding around with racist white women and Asians?

  8. The VTA’s failure to scrupulously commit to the county and state industry-specific directives for public transit demonstrates how it prioritizes the health and safety of its riders and drivers. These directives are not “just a guidance” to be reviewed “to see if they can be adopted.” They are mandatory.

    The VTA wants to win the public’s trust, but fails to regularly disclose COVID-19 case numbers among employees. Nor did the VTA express sorrow upon learning of the tragic death of veteran bus driver Audrey Lopez. Her passing was only mentioned upon adjourning the last Board meeting.