CA Transit Association Asks for Help to Stave Off Transit Collapse

From the California Transit Association's ad campaign in support of financial aid for transit
From the California Transit Association's ad campaign in support of financial aid for transit
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The California Transit Association (CTA), which represents over 85 local transit agencies in California, has issued an appeal for emergency federal and state funding to keep them operating.

Although many operators received emergency funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, that funding was in response to immediate emergency needs to keep transit operating during the first few months of shelter-in-place. Steep drops in ridership and the elimination of fare payments on many systems to avoid contact between riders and drivers caused huge revenue losses, but the need to keep operating buses and trains to get essential workers to their jobs did not diminish.

The CTA sent a letter to California Congressional representatives and to state leaders requesting more funding.

“Since the passage of the CARES Act, which we had hoped would suffice,” read the letters,

the funding outlook for public transit has clarified and only become more worrisome. We had long considered that a second wave of negative impacts would come crashing down on transit agencies when sales tax revenues plummeted, because of the slowing economy. That said, we did not anticipate the size and severity of this second wave. Our most recent analysis shows that the funding shortfall faced by transit agencies statewide now exceeds $3.1 billion. The combined need in Los Angeles and the Bay Area alone is $3.1 billion, underscoring the particularly dire funding picture in the urban regions of the state whose transit agencies have historically served the most riders.

The emergency funding we are now urging you to provide would address the remaining needs for transit agencies after fully accounting for the investments already made in CARES Act funding, which were intended only to blunt the worst and most immediate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. This additional funding is essential to preventing significant and permanent reductions in transit services that would adversely impact communities throughout the state. Without additional funding, it could take years for public transit to recover from today’s crisis,resulting in the elimination of important mobility options for millions of Californians and the unnecessary delay of California’s economic recovery.

The CARES money was “a great stop-gap measure,” said Michael Pimentel, deputy executive director of the CTA. It meant all the difference for many operators who faced immediate budget deficits. But its assumptions were limited to immediate emergency needs, and it did not account for future declines in funding sources. Local sales tax revenues, which fund many transit operations and capital projects, have declined as people lost income and curtailed shopping. Diesel excise taxes, the portion of the gas tax that helps pay for transit, has also decreased as the amount of driving plummeted under stay-at-home orders. And the drop in ridership and fare revenues is expected to continue even as people slowly go back to work–if that happens.

It all adds up to a “looming fiscal cliff,” according to Pimentel, when agencies will run out of money entirely. If that happens, the consequences will be severe for people who rely on transit to get where they need to go, a group that tends to be low-income, more women than men, and mostly Black, indigenous, and people of color. But the consequences for everyone else would be just as bad. Without transit, cities will choke on congestion, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions will increase, and people will spend more time in cars, driving farther in heavier traffic, and spend more money on fuel and maintenance.

The economy is tough on everyone, and industries in every realm need help. But the importance of transit is hard to overstate. Even focusing on the one issue of getting essential workers to their jobs shows the wide-ranging impacts that would come from losing transit. Everyone else, even those who can stay home, need these essential workers – health care workers, farmworkers, grocery store clerks – to get to work.

“This funding, especially now, will serve the communities that most need it,” said Pimentel. “These are our essential workers. If we’re going to rely on them, it’s on us to support them. We can’t just sit back and let transit fail just because we collectively can’t stand up and provide the support they need.”

The figure $3.1 billion is based on two of the biggest transit regions’ estimates of what they would need to keep operating at a minimum level. “That’s the floor,” said Pimentel.

Some agencies are already beginning to plan for that moment they run out of money. AC Transit, in the East Bay, has floated a proposal for deep service cuts that it plans to keep working on and vote on some time early next year. San Francisco’s Muni has already cut many of its bus routes, and is planning for a future where they may not come back unless money comes from somewhere.

The CTA’s request for funding comes at the same time that Congress is considering several additional relief bills and further investment in clean energy, transportation, and climate. But while the House has passed versions of the reauthorization of the federal surface transportation act, the “INVEST in America Act,” and the HEROES Act, a second stimulus package, the Senate has pretty much refused to consider any of the three.

“Without serious investment from the federal government, it will be very hard to get any funding for transit operations,” said Pimentel.

The CTA has launched an ad campaign to draw attention to these issues. It also created enlightening, if depressing, regional fact sheets on the challenges faced by transit operators, which are available here.

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