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Metro, other transit providers plead for funding in second federal coronavirus package

The American Public Transportation Association is urging Congress to pass $32 billion for transit

Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld in 2015. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Public transportation providers — including Metro — sounded a unified alarm on Tuesday after the Senate excluded transit from a second coronavirus relief proposal, a move which transit leaders warned would result in catastrophic service cuts and layoffs.

We’re disappointed that the Senate plan did not include the funding, and we urge the Senate to reconsider,” said Paul P. Skoutelas, president and chief executive of the American Public Transportation Association. “Additional funds are critical to maintain the manufacturing and supply chain and limit the enormous economic damage to public transportation businesses that are caused by this crisis.”

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Transit providers are collectively asking for at least $32 billion from the federal relief package being negotiated as many say their agencies have suffered fare losses of between 70 and 90 percent because of the pandemic. They say they continued to operate over the past five months, providing rides to essential service workers such as hospital employees and grocery store clerks. Meanwhile, transit agencies also are a focal point for state and local recovery plans, helping to shuttle workers back to offices and preparing for the possibility of schools reopening in the fall.

After receiving $25 billion in April from the $2 trillion Cares Act, many transit leaders felt confident they would also be included in a second stimulus. But many were surprised when the Senate on Monday released an initial proposal for the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability, and Schools Act (the Heals Act) that provided no help for ailing transit systems.

“The HEALS Act put forward by the U.S. Senate is shameful,” Patrick J. Foye, the chief executive of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) said in a statement. “This backwards bill will only further devastate our country and economy with no dedicated funding for mass transit — the circulatory system of the nation — and no new support for state and local governments.”

MTA, the nation’s largest public transit system, projected a shortfall of $11 billion through 2021 if state and local governments reduce transit subsidies because of tax revenue losses.

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More than 10 transit chiefs including Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld made impassioned cases for another bailout during a virtual news conference Tuesday, where each detailed their agency’s financial woes and explained what could happen if their needs weren’t met.

Metro, the nation’s second largest transit agency, has been losing $2 million a weekday in fare revenue since March, Wiedefeld said. Like many transit systems, the agency has stopped collecting bus fares by requiring passengers to board using rear doors to keep bus operators isolated from possible exposure to the coronavirus.

Ridership has been at historic lows since mid-March, with Metrorail trips on Monday down 90 percent when compared with pre-pandemic levels and Metrobus trips down 66 percent, according to the agency’s latest count.

Metro has recently seen a small surge in ridership, mostly federal workers who began returning to offices in late June. The transit agency is also under pressure to run more trains and buses to avoid overcrowding and help passengers maintain social distancing. The agency plans to double the number of trains, buses and routes in service starting in mid-August, bringing levels back to nearly what they were before the novel coronavirus impacted the Washington region.

While the Cares Act has helped cover costs into this month, the agency does not know how it can make up funding in coming months, Wiedefeld said.

“My concern is how are we going to provide the needed service to support restarting the economy and meet payroll with significantly reduced fare revenues and further reduced local and state funds given their financial realities?” Wiedefeld said. “We need federal assistance. The harsh reality is without additional federal funds, it leaves us with some very difficult choices to deal with this financial crisis, ones that run counter to the economic recovery, we all want to see.”

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Dorval Carter, president of the Chicago Transit Authority, said his agency needs $345 million in aid to get through the rest of the year because of fare losses, and $1.5 billion next year. Ridership that had dropped by 80 percent over the past five months has only crept back up 10 percent, he said.

“The truth of the matter is that without a federal source of subsidy, there is no way CTA or any other transit agency in this country is going to be able to fill that gap that we’re all going to be facing going forward,” Carter said.

“That is not a good thing for the CTA. It is not a good thing for our customers, but even more importantly, it is not a good thing for the economy,” Carter said.

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Transit leaders said they are pressing their respective legislative delegations to lobby on their behalf, and noted that the Senate bill was an early proposal.

“I support strong funding levels for transit, and the Senate’s failure to include any transit emergency relief is unacceptable," said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee. "Transit is a lifeline for our essential workers, and transit employees and riders alike must be considered in any and all COVID related stimulus packages.”

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), chairwoman of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on surface transportation, did not respond to a request for comment.

Scott Smith, chief executive of Valley Metro in Phoenix, spoke directly to Republicans, who control the Senate, in making his case for transit aid. The former Republican mayor of Mesa, Ariz., and a former president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said he knows transit is not a party priority, and he acknowledged that even he viewed it at one time as an “amenity."

But he said it has become clear to him that federal relief is not a “handout” but an “investment” in people and the economy. Early on during the pandemic, he said the chief executive of a hospital group pleaded with him to keep service running so “core essential” hospital workers could get to work.

“The economy is about individuals, just like the disease is individual in nature at the end of the day,” Smith said. “The essential nature of public transportation across this country means that any investment that we make returns financially many times over because of the ability we have to support and upgrade our economy and performance, because we provide that base of workers and the ability to connect."