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U.S. Transit Agencies Face Rough Road Ahead, Experts Say

Even as funding and fares dry up, transit agencies across the country continue to provide service for front-line responders and those serving essential functions during the COVID-19 crisis.

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Like nearly every other aspect of life in America, the novel coronavirus has sucker-punched public transit.

Agencies across the nation are scrambling to respond to significantly reduced ridership, to ensure essential workers can get to their jobs, and a frightening fiscal future where funding streams have been reduced to a trickle.

“The monetary impacts of this crisis are all over the place,” said Steve Young, vice president of technology and innovation at VIA Metropolitan Transit in San Antonio, in a webinar Wednesday hosted by transit data analytics company Swiftly and Transit app.

In San Antonio, transit ridership is down 45 to 50 percent, said Young, adding that VIA, like a number of transit agencies, is waiving fares.

“We’ve lost that revenue stream as well as our sales tax revenue, which is a huge part of our operational revenue. Sales tax is essentially drying up,” said Young, who anticipates ridership and the economy will recover slowly.

“There will have to be discussions and thoughts around what needs to be done in the longer term to sustain transit for the critical services that we provide,” he added.

Some $25 billion in recovery funding was approved by Congress in the more than $2 trillion CARES Act. Whether that amount ends up being enough to shore up public transit during the crisis and recovery remains an open question, say analysts.

“Until we know the length of those periods of time and rate of which transit riders come back, there’s  no way to know if that $25 billion is going to get us part of the way there, most of the way there, all the way there, what have you,” said David Zipper, visiting fellow from the Harvard Kennedy School, speaking from Washington D.C. Zipper specializes in urban mobility and technology, working with both cities and startups. 

A 50 percent loss in ridership during the COVID-19 crisis is largely considered lucky. Some transit providers like Bay Area Rapid Transit in California have reported 90 percent drops in ridership.

The ridership reductions have placed transit agencies in the delicate position of both pulling back service, while still providing transit as safely as possible. A number of agencies have switched to rear-door boarding to maintain physical distancing, as well as waiving fares, since this exchange could present a danger.

Nearly half of more than 90 agencies surveyed have eliminated fares completely, said David Block-Schachter, chief business officer for the Transit app.

The pandemic is revealing the varied and essential rolls transit plays in communities.

VIA in San Antonio plans to use transit vehicles to serve as mobile Wi-Fi hot spots in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The project is a partnership among the local housing authority, the city of San Antonio and the school district.

“A lot of the families lack Internet access, yet they’re supposed to be learning right now, at their home,” said Young.

“We’ll be kicking that off in the next week,” Young announced during the webinar. “And hopefully, we’ll be able to provide some of that access to learning. It’s really taking the philosophy that we’re part of a greater community, we’re serving a greater need."

The transit agency has also partnered with the local food bank to make home deliveries, said Young, citing higher demand than ever.

“Everybody working in this space has been scrambling to figure this stuff out, and do crisis management on a day-to-day basis,” said Zipper.

But the crisis has also presents an opportunity to re-orient the public conversation around transit.

Jarrett Walker, president of Jarrett Walker and Associates in Portland, Ore., a transit consulting firm, admonished members of the media and others who tend to see the success of transit purely through the lens of ridership.

Transit has often had to navigate the conflict between ridership goals and “coverage goals,” which are more of a function of need or expectation of service, said Walker.

“We also have to realize right now that the work transit agencies are doing right now isn’t about ridership,” he added. “What transit is doing right now is making it possible for civilization to continue. What transit is doing right now is making it possible for everyone upon whom civilization rests at the moment — everyone who works in medical, everyone who works at the grocery store, everyone who works in the supply chain — everyone who is doing all of those things, without which our civilization would collapse right now. Transit is making that possible.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.