Mass Transit Continues to Struggle as the COVID Crisis Drags On

In a New York Times article published this past Sunday, Ben Fried, a spokesman for TransitCenter, a transportation advocacy group, described mass transit systems across the country as being in “existential peril” due to continued financial issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the pandemic exploded into American cities in the spring, the disruption to mass transit has been visible in a number of ways. In April, New York’s subway system, which has been operating 24/7 for decades, moved to shut down from 1 am to 5 am, to allow for cleaning (though subway cars, at least, may be safer than other forms of transit, as they have air flow that can diminish the amount of viral particles in the air). Shutdowns, reduced services, and budget cuts are widespread across mass transit systems, and transit employees have faced continued danger of viral exposure and death. In March, Jason Hargrove, a Detroit bus driver, posted a video from his bus after a passenger coughed on him, and just a week after the video went up, he died from COVID. Back in New York, by September 100 members of Transit Workers Union Local 100 had died of the disease, while D.C.’s Metro got “lucky” and lost its first employee in August.

While their employees face physical danger, the transit systems themselves are also threatened. In June, New York’s MTA projected $10.3 billion in losses over the next two years – and warned that could lead to service cuts and fare hikes. In July San Francisco’s Muni suggested it will lose a majority of its’ bus lines to budget cuts. This month D.C.’s Metro put out a proposed budget that pushes the wait between trains up to 15-30 minutes, ends weekend subway service, and cuts half the agency’s bus lines. But while such measures may keep the systems afloat, they run the risk of further degrading mass transit and leading to a potential “death spiral.” The concern is that while service cuts will save money and allow transit systems to continue operating, those same cuts will drive down usage. Think about it – if the subway only comes every 30 minutes, are you more or less likely to use it for your commute? That could lead to further revenue declines, even as the world begins to open up again post-pandemic. Reductions in service are already hurting vulnerable populations, as it makes it harder for essential workers to get to their still-open workplaces and limits the ability of low income and disabled individuals to obtain food and medicine. In a report, advocacy group Transportation for America showed that the burden of transit cuts will fall disproportionally on minority communities, based on a model reflecting 50% reductions in service. Mass transit within cities and regions is not the only thing at risk – Amtrak has, at times during the pandemic, had 10% of their usual ridership, leading to possible cuts across the nation. Amtrak is an important means of connecting rural communities – who could lose their only non-automobile connection to the outside world.

So what can be done to save mass transit? In May, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a relief bill that included $15 billion for transit systems, but even if that had passed into law it would have been a bandage, not a cure. Federal money will be necessary, and the incoming Biden administration would seem inclined to give it – but whether it can get through a likely divided Congress remains to be seen. Without that money, however, it is hard to see how transit agencies can avoid service cuts and pull themselves out of the death spiral…

P.S. Mass transit is far from the only part of the transportation system desperate for funds. State departments of transportation are seeing less income from tolls and gas taxes, since fewer people are traveling. Pennsylvania’s department, for example, ran out of cash in late November, and was seeking legislative approval to borrow $600 million to keep their projects functioning.