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.”
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.
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.”