Jul 30, 2020 - Economy & Business

Transit agencies want more federal help to survive COVID-19 crisis

Image of scant ridership on NYC bus

Bus ridership is way down, leading to budget shortfalls for transit agencies. (Photo by Jeenah Moon/Getty Images)

Public transportation agencies are getting squeezed by higher costs and lower revenues because of the pandemic, and warning they'll have to furlough employees or cut service without more government assistance.

The big picture: The funding squeeze is not just a big city problem. Transportation agencies in rural areas are suffering, too. Without a way for people to get to their jobs, shopping and schools, local economies can't recover.

What they're saying: Transit agencies are seeking $32 billion in federal aid to keep buses and trains running, on top of the $25 billion they already received in March under the initial CARES Act.

  • "This pandemic is more protracted than anyone expected, and this comeback will be longer as well, which is why we need that bridge," said Paul P. Skoutelas, president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association.
  • It could be years before transit agencies recover, said Andrew C. Aiello, general manager of the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky, where ridership is down 50%.
  • "Take transportation away and see what happens to the base economy. You’re not going to like it," CEO of Phoenix's Valley Metro system Scott Smith said.

Driving the news: Transportation was left out of the latest $1 trillion stimulus bill proposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other GOP leaders this week.

Between the lines: Transit agencies in big cities like Chicago and Houston and rural communities like Salinas, Calif., report a double-whammy is straining their finances:

  • Revenues from fare collections and local sales taxes have collapsed because of lower ridership and the virus' economic impact.
  • Meanwhile, operating costs are up because of extra cleaning and other measures needed to keep employees and passengers safe.

The bottom line: Despite the budget issues, most transit agencies are running close to normal schedules to help essential workers and those who don't have other options get where they need to go during the pandemic.

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