April 22 – MTC to divvy up federal CARES Act funding for transit; more emergency funding likely needed

On April 22, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission is scheduled to divide the first slice of $1.3 Billion in emergency funding for public transportation that the Bay Area received from the federal CARES Act.

The funding is essential because during the Covid-19 shelter-in-place, transit is continuing to carry people for essential jobs and trips, while revenue is drastically reduced. 

As most people stay home, ridership is down by 80-90%, greatly reducing fare revenue.  Some agencies including SamTrans and VTA have eliminated fare collection to protect riders and drivers.  Sales taxes, which most agencies depend on for public funding, is going to be steeply reduced as many businesses are closed.

The MTC is planning to allocate the money in two slices, the first in April, and the second over the summer as the sales tax results are known.

Priorities for this funding should be:

  • Expenses needed to protect the health of riders and transit workers, such as personal protective equipment for operators, and cleaning of transit vehicles and stations
  • Operating funding to maintain a level of service that is needed to move passengers to essential jobs and trips, in some cases running more frequent service to enable passengers to maintain a  and make up for lost revenue
  • As a third priority, catching up on maintenance

Some agencies are taking advantage of time when they are running the light emergency schedule to catch up on deferred maintenance to enable the system to run more reliably and avoid furloughing workers. This is also a reasonable use of money – at a third priority behind keeping passengers and workers safe and keeping the essential network running. 

Coordinated emergency network – ease of use for essential trips

In order to enable essential workers and essential trips now, and start to restore service as the economy starts to open up, the region ought to have a plan for the network, not just a plan for each separate agency. For example, the agency by agency cuts are leaving people whose essential trips require connecting between BART and Caltrain with even more awkward and delay-filled schedules than before.

MTC should do at a regional level what SFMTA has done on a citywide level and develop a Core Service Plan, analyzing which routes to keep, prune, and increase service, with the goal of maximizing the ability of essential workers to get around regionwide.  With lower frequency, there may be opportunities to design schedules for pulse connections for important feeder routes and regional connections.

And while the system is taking emergency funding, making the system easier to use for people by providing free transfers.

Avoid using emergency funding for back-burner capital projects.

With a highly flexible source of federal funding, some decision-makers may be tempted to use it to fund capital programs that do not directly support providing emergency and recovery service in the short term.  During the last recession, for example, funding for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was used to fund the Oakland Airport Connector, a project that did not score well on criteria of regional benefit. 

As transit agencies struggle to maintain and restore service, the main goals of emergency funding should be to maintain service and make that service as convenient and reliable as possible for people who depend on it.

More emergency funding likely will be needed

National transit think tank TransitCenter has estimated that the $1.3 Billion in federal funding is unlikely to be enough.  Looking at funding needs on an agency by agency basis, TransitCenter expects a one year revenue shortfall of $1.9 to $2.8 Billion in the Bay Area.  

To enable the transit system to keep running and start to recover ridership as the region gradually thaws from the Covid deep freeze, more funding will likely be needed. Stay tuned for more opportunities for federal and state funding with actions you can take.