Stimulus Funding Needed for Mass Transit Systems Nationwide to Avoid Service Cuts

There's an upside to the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City: It's easy to find a seat on the subway.

But that's bad news for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). The plunge in ridership has punched a multi-billion dollar hole in their budget. Officials say deep service cuts and layoffs loom unless the agency receives a $12 billion federal bailout.

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A police officer with his K-9 companion keeps guard as a Long Island Rail Road train from New York City arrives at the station on April 15, 2013 in Hicksville, New York. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

New York City is not alone. Transit systems throughout the nation face deep deficits and an uncertain future. Even with effective COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer, Moderna and others, it's unclear how many workers will return to the office in major cities once they are available and widely distributed. That could permanently alter transit ridership.

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA), a Washington-based non-profit representing about 1,500 public and private sector organizations, urges Congress to move quickly on "at least" a $32 billion emergency funding package for the nation's public transit systems.

The Association said about 33% of the nation's transit agencies have delayed capital projects, and about 20% have dipped into the capital budget to cover current operating costs.

"Without additional emergency funding, many transit agencies will soon need to cut services and routes and furlough workers, "APTA CEO Paul Skoutelas said in a statement, "leaving our communities without service and jobs when they need us most."

During the worst of the pandemic, New York City subway ridership plunged about 90%. It's recovered a bit, but is now operating at about 70% of pre-pandemic levels.

The MTA is exploring a combination of possible solutions.

Subway service could be cut by as much as 40% by reducing train frequency, suspending service on some lines at certain times of the day when ridership is low, and imposing what the agency calls "major" weekend service changes. The proposed cuts would eliminate about 2,400 jobs, but they might result in a 35% reduction in the number of subway cars needed in service, reducing maintenance and cleaning costs.

"The Metropolitan Transit Authority continues to face a once-in-100-year fiscal tsunami," Chairman Patrick Foye said in a statement. "No one at the MTA wants to undertake these horrific cuts, but with federal relief nowhere in sight there is no other option."

Metro North, serving suburbs north of the city, and the Long Island Railroad, serving communities east of Manhattan, also face cutbacks.

In Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) proposes to eliminate ferry service, drop suburban commuter rail service after 9 p.m. on weekends, reduce frequency of trains on four lines and close six little-used stations. Bus service also would be reduced, but the agency hasn't proposed a fare increase.

"The MBTA – as with other transit systems across the world – must adapt to changing ridership and lost revenue caused by COVID-19," General Manager Steve Poftak said in a letter to riders.

The agency said suburban computer rail service now carries only 8.5% of its pre-pandemic morning rush-hour riders, while transit service is at about 25% of pre-pandemic levels. Some trains average only a few riders per trip. The MBTA said most current services will continue, and proposed service changes aren't necessarily permanent. It said that service will be restored as ridership and revenue permit.

The Chicago Transit Authority has approved a $1.64 billion 2021 operating budget that contains no service cuts or fare increases, but that budget is contingent upon receipt of emergency federal funding to cover pandemic-related losses.

The CTA operating budget is about $375 million in the red. The system also approved a $3.4 billion capital budget, including money for new electric busses. Chicago plans to have an all-electric bus fleet by 2040.

San Francisco halted service on many bus lines at the height of the pandemic, and service may not be restored in some areas as ridership patterns changed during the pandemic. It's unknown how many people will avoid public transit in the future or how many will work from home, eliminating the need to commute.

So far, capital projects in the San Francisco system remain intact. Seismic upgrades have been completed on the Twin Peaks tunnel linking downtown with the Pacific side of the city, and track work is scheduled to begin later this month. Work on the Central Subway connecting Chinatown with downtown was slowed by several months due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but continues.

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), which serves San Francisco and East Bay communities, is reviewing possible cuts. Ridership has rebounded but remains more than 80% below pre-pandemic levels. Staff could be cut.

In Denver, the Regional Transit District joined the call for Congress to authorize $32 billion in funding to help the nation's transit systems during the pandemic. Earlier this year, the agency received $232 million in the first round of federal funding to help cover lost revenue as riders stayed home. The current budget calls for service cutbacks and layoffs.

"For our riders, this budget shortfall means significant cuts in routes and less frequent service on remaining routes," transit district CEO Paul Ballard said in a letter to the state's congressional delegation. "For our employees, this means salary reductions for many, additional furlough days, and workforce reductions of around 25%."

All Transit, a research agency funded by Transit Center, an advocacy group in New York, said proposed cutbacks typically hit those who are most dependent on mass transit and can least afford to drive to work. Reducing the frequency of service would lengthen commute time for many and could widen the gap between the affluent and poor.

"It is paramount that low-income residents have access to the same level of opportunity as those living in affluent neighborhoods," All Transit said in a report.

"This is not only to support those currently at-risk, but also to ensure the sustainability of a higher-quality of life for future generations," the report said.

New York City closes the subway between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. each day for cleaning. Like other systems, masks are required and social distancing encouraged. For some, the possibility of service cutbacks is still theoretical and outweighed by immediate concerns about the coronavirus.

A reporter approached one New York City subway rider and asked about the possibility of proposed cuts becoming permanent as she hurried to catch a train.

"Go away," she replied.

Without significant federal relief, that phrase may sum up the fate of some mass transit service not just in New York City, but nationwide.