In western Montana earlier this month, many of the nation’s transit leaders climbed aboard one of Missoula’s blue and neon green electric buses to do some window shopping.
While transit agencies, including Metro in the Washington region, worry about the slow pace of riders returning amid the coronavirus pandemic and the effect telecommuting could have on revenue, they simultaneously are looking to make expensive service upgrades. Most are eyeing electric buses, expanding rapid transit buses, installing high-tech fare gates or adding mobile fare payment systems.
The bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan — which includes a record $107 billion federal investment in transit projects — would put public transit officials in the position of bracing for possible job and service cuts because of revenue losses while also providing an opportunity to modernize their systems. The plan that recently passed the Senate calls for funding upgrades, giving agencies in the Washington region and nationwide a reason to dust off their wish lists.
Infrastructure package funding is largely devoted to capital projects, such as building, construction and equipment. In most cases, those funds can’t be spent to make up for huge fare revenue losses tied to the pandemic. Three coronavirus stimulus packages included operational dollars that many agencies continue to rely on.
Scott Bogren, executive director of the D.C.-based Community Transportation Association of America, said the infrastructure package melds the uncertainties that accompany depressed ridership numbers with possibilities stemming from an infusion of federal cash. It’s those prospects that had transit officials in Montana looking at buses nearly twice as expensive as the alternatives.
“The timing of it, where you have this combination of a pandemic and the operational disaster that it offered in terms of what it did to ridership and other things, followed right on the heels by investment levels that are there for the first time — I don’t know if I’d call it generational, but if it’s not generational, it’s close to it,” he said.
Transit agencies say their challenge is to ensure that infrastructure projects fueled by an increase in federal dollars align with the needs of their riders.
That would have been easy less than two years ago, but the pandemic altered commuting patterns, flattened ridership numbers at rush hour and created new demand at other times. Many transit agencies had been waiting until after Labor Day — when many companies signaled they would reopen offices — to see how many people would resume their commutes on transit.
But the spread of the coronavirus’s delta variant has delayed many office reopenings, leaving transit planners in limbo.
“Do we know enough of how to invest this money?” said transit consultant John Gasparine, a vice president of at WSP USA, an engineering and consulting firm. “When this money comes [with intercity and commuter rail], agencies are going to have to organize themselves to deliver more infrastructure than they have in a lifetime.”
At the Montana conference Bogren’s association hosted, one session allowed transit leaders to discuss changes they see in commuting patterns in an attempt to sift out what could become permanent trends. In a perfect world, Bogren said, a possible massive federal investment — which transit lobbyists say would be 63 percent above current levels — would be something transit leaders prepared for without staring down the uncertainties of a pandemic.
But as coronavirus caseloads rise nationwide to their highest level since February — even as more than half the country is fully vaccinated against the virus — officials say there’s no avoiding a pandemic that appears to be sticking around.
“From a timing perspective, it’s a lot better to have those funds there … even if maybe it’s a little sooner than we’d like,” Bogren said. “I mean, that’s a problem that I’d much rather have than those funds not being there.”
Various recent crises have provided transit agencies with clear cues on how to spend a possible windfall. Coronavirus transmission fears made contactless and mobile-paying systems a priority, while wildfires and record heat that scientists link to climate change have more transit leaders considering zero-emission buses.
Even as many agencies’ payrolls and operating budgets remain uncertain, John Costa, international president of the Silver Spring-based Amalgamated Transit Union, the nation’s largest public transportation guild, said he supports agencies spending on innovation. Federal grants within the infrastructure package are likely to prioritize electric buses as well as training the bus mechanics who will service them, union officials said.
In some instances, money from the infrastructure package also can help to buffer future fare revenue losses and protect the jobs of transit workers.
Under federal guidelines, transit agencies serving populations of 50,000 or fewer can use federal money for operating expenses, even though larger agencies must use the money for capital projects. In certain instances, bigger agencies can shift federal dollars toward operational costs like maintenance — a practice that agencies such as Metro have used to make up for recent increased cleaning costs and fare revenue losses.
Officials at several transit agencies say they plan to use any boost in federal funding on repairs and upgrades.
At Metro, the transit agency still expects more money despite Congress slashing a proposed $50 million annual increase that lawmakers had sought in February. In recent months, the transit agency has fast-tracked train platform and station escalator reconstruction, with similar “state-of-good-repair” projects likely to be funded by any new federal dollars.
Money from the infrastructure bill is also likely to speed a transition to electric buses after Metro’s board in June passed a goal of transforming its nearly 1,500-bus fleet to all-electric by 2045. The transit agency will purchase its first buses in 2023.
Around Washington, officials with Montgomery County’s transit system hope to use federal grants to boost a small fleet of electric buses. Four electric buses operate on RideOn routes with 10 more on order. Another 20 will be ordered next year — purchased with Federal Transit Administration grants. Any additional federal support, Montgomery transit leaders said, would help to expand to a second depot.
Montgomery County Council President Tom Hucker (D-District 5) noted the irony of awaiting increased federal investment in transit while the pandemic grabs fare revenue.
“The council is certainly going to want to expand our electric bus fleet,” said Hucker, who chairs the Transportation and Environment Committee. “Dickens would say it’s the best of times and the worst of times in transit.”
New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the nation’s largest transit system, plans to upgrade accessibility for disabled riders, add four new stations in the East Bronx and bring the Metro-North Railroad line to Penn Station, MTA acting chief executive Janno Lieber said.
The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority has not had a major expansion since the 1990s, despite a population boom.
Colleen Kiernan, senior director of government and community affairs for the transit agency, said the region has a “huge unmet need” for service expansions, including the creation of multiple bus rapid transit routes. Bus rapid transit systems, which use dedicated highway lanes to bypass traffic and can include stops or stations like a rail system — are an increasingly popular item for many transit agencies.
“We have a number of expansion projects that are close to ready to move forward,” Kiernan said.
The Chicago Transit Authority said it would use increases in annual funding from Washington and money from capital grant programs for system upgrades and to advance its goal of converting to an all-electric bus fleet by 2040, spokeswoman Catherine Hosinski said.
The Denver-area Regional Transportation District, which for years led most transit agencies nationwide in its number of electric buses, could use the funds to replace worn-out vehicles, spokeswoman Michelle Brier said. The agency has nearly 40 all-electric buses.
Al Sanders, spokesman for King County Metro in the Seattle area, said federal money from the infrastructure bill would go toward converting and expanding facilities with charging stations to support an all-electric bus fleet.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County in the Houston area plans to seek federal grants to support a voter-approved $7 billion expansion plan. The project includes new light-rail lines and modernizing high-frequency bus routes, spokeswoman Jackie Gil said.
Like many agencies, Houston Metro is also looking to electric buses, which Gil said would allow the nation’s fourth-largest city to “focus on sustainable, climate-friendly service.”