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COVID Relief Bill Spares Public Transit Industry Massive Service Cuts

December 29, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
A Long Island Rail Road train passes through the crossing at Stewart Avenue in Bethpage. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s signature on the sweeping coronavirus relief and federal spending bill passed by Congress just before Christmas will likely spare the nation’s public transit the drastic cuts in services and employees the industry has been anticipating for months.

Public transit agencies have been hit hard by coronavirus as their passengers shy away from riding trains and buses to avoid infection.

Most of them have cut back drastically on hours and frequency of service. They also have laid off or furloughed thousands of workers nationwide.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 that Trump signed into law on Sunday funds the federal government through September 2021 and includes nearly $900 billion in assistance to industries and individuals impacted by the COVID-19 health crisis.  

The package provides $14 billion to the public transit industry in emergency funding relief, which is mandated to be allocated within 30 days of the bill’s enactment.

The total includes $13.27 billion for urbanized area formula funds, $50 million for enhanced mobility formula funds and $678.65 million for rural area formula funds. 

In addition, Amtrak will see $1 billion in emergency funds and private transportation providers such as motorcoach carriers and school bus operators will have access to $2 billion in emergency relief funds.

“Relief is on the way for the transportation sector!” Tweeted Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on Monday. 

“@USDOT will do its part in getting this funding out as quickly as possible to help meet payroll for millions of workers and keep transportation systems moving,” she wrote.

Prior to Trump’s acting on the legislation, Paul P. Skoutelas, president of the American Public Transportation Association said in a statement that the legislation “is a critical step in supporting public transit agencies so that they can survive and help our communities and nation recover from the economic fallout of the pandemic.”

The association is a trade group for public transportation.

However, he added that at least $32 billion is needed to help public transportation agencies recover from overwhelming losses during the pandemic.

APTA officials also warned that the consequences of underfunding transit extend far beyond bus and rail systems to ripple through the entire economy.

Low income persons could suffer the most under this scenario. Unlike persons who can afford their own cars, they must use mass transit to get to their jobs, grocery stores and doctors’ offices.

Without transit access, they can lose their jobs and the opportunity to spread the wealth from their salaries.

President-elect Biden has pledged that more government aid will be coming soon. He declined to give details.

Transit officials say they hope both federal aid and vaccines arrive promptly to avoid an economic “death spiral.” In some cities, they tentatively plan to raise fares to make up for their shortfall of funding, which they know will drive even more riders away.

The biggest metropolitan transit agencies are hurting the most. In Washington, D.C., rail ridership is down 86% compared with last year; between 67% and 72% for New York; and 88% for San Francisco, according to ridership figures from each of the transit agencies.

Until this week, New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority was one of the agencies considering a potentially massive fare increase as it projected a $16 billion shortfall related to COVID-19 through 2024.

The pending congressional relief bill would bring the nation’s largest transit agency at least $4 billion to hold it over until ridership returns.

“This crucial funding will allow us to get through 2021 without devastating service cuts and layoffs of over 9,000 colleagues,” Pat Foye, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s chief executive officer, said in a statement. “To be clear, we are still facing an $8 billion deficit in the years ahead but this is a promising first step that will help protect the local, state and national economies in the short term.”

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority was preparing for as many as 2,400 job losses by next summer. It already is dealing with a $177 million deficit for this year.

Until this year, WMATA shared honors with New York City as having one of the nation’s most successful transit agencies.

Now its plans call for shutting down 19 stations and eliminating all weekend train service. On weekdays, the trains would run only every 30 minutes but stop at 9 p.m.

WMATA already received $877 million in federal relief last May. However, the money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act is depleted.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., tried to revive hopes for the transit agency in a tweet this week. More than $800 million in public transportation funding would go to transit agencies in the Washington area under the pending relief bill, he said. WMATA would get most of it.

In San Francisco, the Bay area’s transit agencies stand to receive $975 million under the economic stimulus bill. Nevertheless, they say it is unlikely to be enough to prevent service cuts.

The San Francisco Municipal Railway, the public transit system for the city and county of San Francisco, is tapping into its reserve funds as it faces the worst financial crisis in its 110-year history.

The number of bus riders is down 70%. Revenue for the transit agency has fallen 93% since the pandemic started. Mechanics say they lack parts for some needed maintenance.

A tentative budget plan Muni officials announced this month called for 1,200 layoffs. The proposed $975 million in federal aid is making them reconsider the layoffs.

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