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The pandemic could devastate mass transit in the U.S. — and not for the reason you think

POLITICO logo POLITICO 1/24/2021 By Tanya Snyder
a person holding a sign: Plummeting revenues — both from the farebox and the state and local tax base that supported them — have had transit systems contemplating devastating service cuts, with New York City MTA considering cutting bus and rail service by 40 percent. © AP Photo/John Minchillo Plummeting revenues — both from the farebox and the state and local tax base that supported them — have had transit systems contemplating devastating service cuts, with New York City MTA considering cutting bus and rail service by 40 percent.

Mass transit might eventually rebound from the worst economic trauma of the coronavirus pandemic. But it still may never be the same, due to the vast changes the outbreak is triggering in the way Americans live and work.

Transit ridership had been falling for years before the pandemic shut down much of the U.S. economy last spring, and it's likely that the virus will only accelerate some of the trends behind that decline. Those include hastening the migration of jobs and people away from dense cities, where transit works best, as well as a newfound enthusiasm for letting employees work from home.

For now, transit leaders are clamoring for additional short-term aid from Congress and the Biden administration, calling financial help critical to ensuring that their trains and buses will be ready to take people to work whenever the economy reopens. But they’re also exploring ways to reshape their systems to stay ahead of their monumental long-term challenges — fearing impacts that could reverberate through their budgets for years.

"Many of these big urban areas have seen a complete shift of where people are living right now,” said Jim Derwinski, CEO of Chicago's Metra system and chair of the Commuter Rail Coalition.

The ongoing shock to the system could wipe out the main justifications for transit's existence — rush hour congestion and pricey downtown parking — even after ridership on buses, subways and commuter trains rises from its current abyss. (Ridership was down 62 percent from pre-pandemic levels as of the third quarter of 2020.)

Companies everywhere are reducing their office footprints amid the pandemic, with more people expected to work from home for at least part of the week for the foreseeable future. Office space vacancy rates are near 15 percent and commercial real estate prices have dropped 8 percent below pre-pandemic levels.

Meanwhile, as many people gain the freedom to work from anywhere, home sales in suburbs and small towns have risen to 85 percent of total sales, up from 80 percent before the outbreak. That's accelerating an overall shift away from the hub-and-spoke model that transit systems were built on, after years in which suburban office parks have pulled rush hour traffic away from urban cores.

“Even a 5 percent decrease in commuters in a major metropolitan area is going to have massive impact,” said Scott Bogren, executive director of the Community Transportation Association of America. “That tends to be, from what I’m reading from economists, on the low side of what they expect to be ‘permanent.'"

Plummeting revenues — both from the farebox and the state and local tax base that supported them — have had transit systems contemplating devastating service cuts, with New York City MTA considering cutting bus and rail service by 40 percent and Washington, D.C., planning to eliminate nighttime and weekend rail service before federal aid finally came through at the end of the year.

Private commuter bus companies are also struggling. New Jersey’s DeCamp Bus Lines, in its sixth generation of ownership by the same family, suspended operations in August, saying it couldn’t sustain the ridership drop from 7,000 riders a day to fewer than 400. It was among the more than 500 bus companies to shut down — at least temporarily — in 2020.

In Silicon Valley, where more than 1,000 “tech buses” used to shuttle employees from the Bay Area to work each day, Google and Facebook are telling employees they don’t need to come back to the office until September and July, respectively, and that increased flexibility to work from home will remain.

Transit agencies got a temporary lifeline in the form of December's $900 billion coronavirus relief bill, which contained $14 billion for transit — less than half of what the industry says it needs but enough to stave off draconian cuts. Combined with the $25 billion transit got from the CARES Act last March, nearly all transit systems in the country will have received at least 75 percent of a normal year’s worth of operating expenses.

More help could be on the way. President Joe Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion supplemental aid package, with $20 billion for transit, and down the line he’s pushing for an ambitious infrastructure package with big money to upgrade transit systems around the country.

His plan would also provide a $350 billion infusion to city and state governments, which together pitch in more than half of transit’s operating funds and didn’t get any aid from the December stimulus bill. After the passage of the CARES Act, at least some states reduced their payments to transit. North Carolina, for instance, zeroed out $51 million worth of transit funding in July.

But cities will be under tremendous pressure to ensure that transit systems are ready to go when people are ready to go back to work, at the risk of slowing down the economic recovery by keeping people from getting to their jobs.

Paul Skoutelas, president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association, acknowledged that the crisis is “painful” and “longer than we’d like.” But he said he is firm in his belief that “our cities will bounce back, and they need transit to do that.”

Still, he said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s going to take a couple years or more, as we get the workforce back.”

The workforce may be a lot different from what it was before the pandemic — and it may not be traveling in the same way it once did.

“I see the rush hours opening up wider,” Chicago's Derwinski predicted. “I see the ridership patterns becoming more fluid — where it used to be your traditional 7:30-9:00, I see it now going maybe 6:30-10:00, because people will be like, ‘Yeah, when I have to come downtown I’ll come downtown.’”

For transit, that means the “traditional five-day-a-week rider” could give way to workers who come to the office only occasionally for meetings, and “we now may need three different people to fill that seat five days," Derwinski said.

The pandemic has also changed how transit agencies think about the value they create — for instance, the critical role they play for society in ensuring that other essential workers can get to their jobs.

“We’ve always equated the value of transit with ridership,” Bogren said. “Ridership is going to be down ... What may end up being the better way to [measure value] is economic output from the trips we’re creating, health care indicators and output from the trips we’re creating, climate and environmental output.“

Behind the scenes, transit agencies have been accelerating innovations that were already in progress before the pandemic. Philadelphia recently contracted with a major urban planning firm for a comprehensive redesign of its bus network — something Houston and several other cities have done in recent years.

Transit will also continue to shift away from an exclusive focus on work trips.

“That has changed as we have seen an expansion of bus rapid transit, light rail systems,” said APTA's Skoutelas. “Those are systems that have really looked to make available transit as an option for other activities — going to the ballpark, going to a show, making it a part of normal travel itineraries, not just the work trip.”

The shift to contactless fare collection, a longtime efficiency goal of transit agencies, has become a reality in many places, accelerated due to the pandemic. Some systems have rolled out other user-friendly changes, like real-time arrival information and mobile apps.

But transit agencies have repeatedly found that bells and whistles don’t attract and retain riders as much as frequent, reliable service. And reliability could suffer if federal aid dries up.

Alex Clifford, CEO and general manager for the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District in California, noted that many of his riders are hospitality and tourism industry workers who depend on transit to get to work.

“When their jobs come back, I need to have the service there for them,” Clifford told POLITICO. “And if it’s not there, guess what — they’re either going to lose their job, or they’re going to find another way to get to work.

“And once they figure out that other way to get to work, they’ll probably never come back,” he said. “They’re lost for good.”

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