In New York, trains on what is normally the nation’s busiest subway system were running mostly empty last week and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was tapping $1 billion from its line of credit to stay afloat. A statewide shelter-in-place order in California prompted even more service cuts for Bay Area Rapid Transit in the San Francisco region — which was already dipping into its $50 million reserve fund to keep operating. And by Friday, the D.C. region’s Metro was projecting a deficit of more than $50 million a month.
The financial losses for the transit sector are projected to be in the billions and the impacts and disruptions could stretch for weeks if not more, say experts and transit leaders who fear that even when the crisis is over, recovery could take months, if not years.
“We really could set back transportation in this country by decades if we don't act,” said Jim Mathews, president and chief executive of the Rail Passengers Association. “The risk is insane.”
As Congress works on coronavirus response legislation, transit and rail systems are also seeking billions of dollars in federal assistance. The White House has outlined a $1 trillion bailout package for the country, including $50 billion for airlines and $500 million for Amtrak. Advocates say transit and commuter rail should be at the forefront of any rescue plan because of the vast numbers of people they serve.
Americans took 2.5 billion trips using public transit in the third quarter of 2019, according to the most recent ridership report from the American Public Transportation Association.
“It is critically important that public transportation not be forgotten,” APTA president and chief executive Paul P. Skoutelas said.
APTA, the industry's leading trade group, is lobbying for $16 billion to maintain essential services across the board. New York's MTA alone is seeking $4 billion in grants. Amtrak, the only transportation option in some rural communities, says it needs $1 billion to make up for its unprecedented loss of ridership and revenue and to avoid employee furloughs and further service cuts.
An infusion of emergency funding is critical to prevent what some experts say could be disastrous setbacks for the sector that is still providing vital transportation to hospital staff, first responders and other critical workers during the crisis.
“We don't want to get to a situation where we have to completely suspend service,” Skoutelas said. “Whether it is New York, Philadelphia, Washington or many of our rural systems, [they] need help now.”
For Metro, which had more than 750,000 passenger trips on its best day in the fall, the pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time. After years of ridership declines driven by chronic reliability problems and safety lapses — which led the federal government to take over safety oversight of the subway after a passenger died — Metro refocused on safety, spending more than $110 million on a rehabilitation program to renew tracks and upgrade equipment and hundreds of millions more on new rail cars and station platforms.
The efforts led to sustained ridership increases starting last year and the transit agency proposed in the coming budget to expand late-night rail service hours, offer a flat weekend rail fare and eliminate a bus-rail transfer fee.
Now, instead of focusing on its resurgence, Metro has found itself in “dire financial circumstances” because of the pandemic, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said in a letter he sent to members of Congress last week.
The agency is losing about $2.5 million a day, a Metro spokesman said, and it has no contingency fund — though it could draw on its line of credit.
The service reductions that the agency has made in concert with local leaders to protect the public and employees from the coronavirus and subsequent losses in fare revenue, combined with spending an unanticipated $17 million on gloves, face masks, disinfectant and other equipment, have led to a projected budget deficit of $52 million a month.
Just weeks before the pandemic became the top priority for government officials across the country, D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), had proposed making public transit free to all residents — a recognition of its importance to keeping the city affordable and accessible to many of its lower-income residents. To Allen, the coronavirus pandemic has emphasized just how important it is to protect public transportation because, he said, so many crucial front-line workers — including those who stock grocery store shelves — use it to get to work.
“When we think about the recovery, even more, we have to think that transit has to be part of the recovery plan,” Allen said. “To have a successful region and to have our economy rebounding the way that we need, we need to have a really strong Metro system and make sure people can ride it.”
Congressional leaders meanwhile say they hear the pleas from agencies like Metro and MTA and are trying to respond while juggling similarly desperate requests from private and public sectors of all types.
“Moving people and goods is not a luxury in this country, it’s an absolute necessity,” said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. DeFazio, who supports a proposal for $12 billion in relief for transit and commuter rail, said there is no aspect of transportation and its millions of workers that isn’t “being adversely impacted” by the crisis.
“We are exploring all options to make sure they can keep serving their communities and delivering critical items like groceries and medical supplies in the short- and long-term future,” DeFazio said.
Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), a member of the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, which reviews many of the funding requests, said providing agencies with financial backing is even more critical during the pandemic.
Transit systems, he said, are “shepherding health-care workers, government officials and emergency responders around the national capital region as they work to keep our communities safe.”
Transit agencies face a projected $7.65 billion in lost fare revenue, while they have spent $1.75 billion in unforeseen costs, including the purchase of emergency protective gear and deep cleaning of facilities and vehicles, according to APTA.
NJ Transit, which is seeking $1.25 billion in federal aid, reported a ridership drop of 88 percent March 9. Ridership is down 90 percent on the MTA’s Metro-North Railroad and 67 percent on the Long Island Rail Road. The systems were pulling full operations as of late last week to carry “people who move New York and take care of New York,” MTA Chairman and Chief Executive Patrick J. Foye said in an interview with NY1, referring to “doctors and nurses and health-care workers, transit workers who are first responders, firefighters, police officers, people who work in pharmacies, in supermarkets, utility workers.”
At BART, where ridership was down 89 percent as of Friday, officials were hopeful about conversations at the state and federal level to make aid available. The system’s fare and parking revenue covers 65 percent of operations and was nearly nonexistent last week.
“Those conversations are going well but we have yet to receive any funds,” BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost said. “This is a financial crisis for BART, as for all public transit.”
Last week, Virginia announced it was issuing $11 million in emergency funding to provide some relief to bus and rail systems across the state, including the Virginia Railway Express, a commuter railroad that about 20,000 people take daily from Northern Virginia to jobs in the nation's capital. VRE’s ridership has tumbled 90 percent.
Meanwhile, Amtrak, the United States’ intercity passenger railroad, estimates it will need $1 billion in supplemental federal aid to weather the crisis. Amtrak’s ridership is down more than 90 percent, cancellations are up more than 400 percent and future bookings have fallen 85 percent since the covid-19 outbreak.
Even after slashing service across its entire network and rolling out a voluntary layoff program and other cost-saving measures, Amtrak forecasts hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue losses that could force the company to furlough employees, further reduce service and halt projects critical to maintain safe operations. The disruptions set Amtrak back after a year of growth in its number of routes, ridership and revenue, and derail projections that in 2020 it would yield positive earnings for the first time in its 50-year history.
“Now the focus is on survival and it's hard to know what comes next,” said Stephen Gardner, senior executive vice president and chief operating and commercial officer.
Besides deep reductions to its core service area between Washingon and New York, Amtrak has also started reducing state-sponsored service, affecting towns and cities across the contiguous United States, where Amtrak is the only option.
The federal emergency funds, Gardner said, are needed to replace the revenue lost, keep employees, maintain a basic level of service and ensure that capital projects go forward.
“Eventually this will pass, but none of the bridges or [train] cars or any of the things we have that are old and need to be replaced will get younger as a result of this crisis,” he said.
As Congress weighs a national bailout, transit and rail advocates say surface transportation needs be at the forefront, even more so than the airlines, which are asking for more than $50 billion in federal assistance.
“For the sake of a transportation network that functions, the taxpayers are going to have to bail them out again,” Mathews said. “It’s very fair and very reasonable to tie strings to that aid and make sure that the rest of the transportation network is also included in the package.”