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Federal Relief Bill Seems Generous to Transit. It’s Not.

New crisis, same old mistakes.

The Federal Transit Administration's $25-billion COVID-19 public transit grant package contains much-needed lifelines for struggling transit agencies across the country — but the amount received by each agency did not take into account the new reality of the virus, but were allocated using the same formulas from normal years.

As a result, the relief package may actually amplify some of the flaws in our national transit funding process — at a moment when fares are plummeting, and we should be rethinking how we fund public transportation from the ground up.

The reliance on old formulas helps explain why the nation's 10 largest transit networks alone requested $25 billion in urgent relief, yet only received $10.5 billion — less than half of what our most transit-rich cities say they need to stay afloat. But even advocates in the cities that lost out have been slow to criticize the agency and demand more — and that's likely because transit has, historically, been underfunded in the U.S., and at first glance, the FTA's grants seem generous.

But the CARES grant funding only looks enormous if you ignore how low the bar was to start. And especially in our largest, most transit-rich cities, these grants may not be enough to save our most essential networks.

Here are four things every American needs to know about the transit portions of the CARES act if you want to understand your city's budget allocation — and lobby your leaders for a better system.

1. Most of the dollars are going to large urban areas — but 'large' isn't as big as you think

No surprise here: about $23 billion of the total $25 billion are going to places that the census considers "urbanized," rather than to rural areas with smaller systems. But "urban," in the FTA's eyes, means "with a population over 200,000 — meaning that micro-metros like Des Moines get put in the same funding bucket as massive metropolises like New York City. (Indeed, Pat Foye, the CEO of the New York region's transit system, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, repeated on Wednesday what he's been saying for days, "We're going to need additional funding from the federal government because of the continued ridership decline.")

2. The formula for how much funding each city gets isn't a good fit for the biggest metros

Of course, that $23 billion isn't just split up between the "big" cities evenly; the fed follows a complex formula to decide who gets the biggest piece of the pie. About 10 percent of the funds are dependent on the population of the metro area, along with the density of the region — which is a big part of why the New York region's MTA is getting $3.7 billion, while Des Moines is getting just $19 million. The remaining 90 percent of the money is divvied up based on factors that depend on how comprehensive and financially efficient each city's system is, taking into account such things as how many miles all riders cumulatively travel on transit each year, how many miles of train track they've built on their routes, the operating cost of the system on the whole, etc.

But some advocates argue that this formula isn't fair to the cities that rely on transit the most — and whose transit networks rely most heavily on consistent fares. New York City, for instance, gets penalized a little for its hyper-dense land use — something that's great for pedestrians and cyclists — because the FTA formula weights the number of miles passengers travel on its buses and trains over other factors like sheer population per square mile.

That partially explains why sprawling Chicago — the 75th densest city in the U.S. — is getting $1.43 billion, or about one-third of New York City's allotment, despite the fact that the Windy City only has about one seventh the combined total bus and rail ridership of the Big Apple. (And yes, that's even when you factor in El trains packed full of drunk Cubs fans.) Their CARES act grant maths out to roughly $6.56 per rider.

Chicago is the most egregious example, but it's not the only large city that made out better than the Big Apple. While New York is getting roughly $1.26 in CARES act funding for every annual rider, Los Angeles is getting $3.28, Boston is getting $2.77, and San Francisco is getting $2.48. Washington, D.C., which holds the second place title for most riders per year — albeit with only 11 percent of NYC's total ridership — is getting $1.56 per passenger.

(Note: rural areas, which will get $2.2 billion of the funding, are covered by formulas that are a little more opaque, so we'll get to that in a subsequent post. In the meantime, if you have an informed take, please submit an op-ed; we'd love to read it.)

3. We don't really know how much money each transit system will really need from the fed as COVID-19 goes on...

Here's one wildly pessimistic idea why public transportation advocates may not be outraged over the CARES act funding right now: because in a wildly unpredictable COVID-19 world, we simply don't know how much transit will actually need to survive once service is cut all the way down to the bone.

One of the first actions many public transportation providers across the country took when ridership began to plummet was to slash bus frequency, shut off whole train lines, and otherwise shrink their systems as quickly as possible. Those cuts come with reductions in fuel costs, system maintenance, bus driver salaries, and much more — but when most agencies began pushing Congress for more funding, they made their dollar estimates based on what it would cost to restore the system to full operation in a fairly short time frame. Some advocates believe there may be other ways to cut costs, such as encouraging inter-agency collaboration between systems with redundant routes.

Moreover, the CARES act isn't the only source of funding available to networks in this challenging moment, even if their fares go to zero (as many will, at least on bus networks, which are making rides free in order to protect drivers). States could still, theoretically, step up with emergency fuding of their own. And a handful of more moneyed transit networks could be their own banks for a while: on March 18, the FTA reportedly issued a memo to transit operators around the country authorizing them to re-allocate up to 100 percent of capital improvement grants in order to plug holes blown in their budgets by the COVID-19 crisis — a decision that some advocates criticized, but could help loosen belts.

"You can’t tell me with a straight face that there are transit operators in this country that don't have a project they can’t postpone a year or two right now," said Larry Penner, who supervised one of the FTA regional offices in New York for 31 years.

4. ...but we do know that no transit network gets nearly as much as roads, and that sucks.

Sure: we can spend all day debating which cities got too big a piece of the CARES act pie compared to their peer communities, and which cities unfairly lost out. But at the end of the day, there's a bigger problem here: when it comes to transit, the whole pie is just too damn small.

Even this $25 billion, historically huge infusion of federal cash into our public transit system is still dwarfed by an average year of road spending. The comparatively enormous $37 billion bucket of money that the FTA will dole out this year is still over $10 billion less than the Federal Highway Administration's $47.4 billion 2020 budget, which will likely balloon even more if an infrastructure stimulus bill passes. And that's before you take into account the roughly $41 billion a year the Federal Highway Trust Fund takes in in the form of gas taxes, the various state and local general revenues that are diverted to road construction and maintenance on our massively overbuilt system, and all the other ways we subsidize driving.

Here's the cold, hard, truth: about 81 percent of federal transportation dollars go towards building and maintaining roads that help kill people, kill state and city budgets (because roads need constant maintenance that is rarely funded by the feds), and kill our planet. We can talk about how to stanch the bleeding without federal money for now, but we cannot afford to forget this: our national transit networks have been running on fumes for generations, and it is not good for America. When the coronavirus crisis subsides, whatever we do, we should never let them become this fragile or fare-dependent again.

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