Transit officials, including those from New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia agencies, joined others to ask for $33 billion in the next CARES act to help them recover financially and resume full service when the coronavirus pandemic ends.
Officials representing five transit agencies and three transit unions made the request during a Tuesday press conference that also asked federal officials to distribute the funds based on revenue losses, instead of by population size.
Didn’t transit agencies get $26 billion from the first $2 trillion CARES act? They did, but agency officials said finances were hit with a double shot – worse than expected ridership declines that killed fare revenue and an uncertain outlook for subsidies, as state budgets are strained.
“The devastating financial impact is no greater then in the New York-New Jersey region and the aid is critical for agencies to move people to and from work, as the economy recovers,” said Kevin Corbett, NJ Transit CEO and President. “In the last few months, we got a full understanding of financial impact. We thought (ridership) would be down 90%, it is below 95%.”
The CARES act provides critical temporary funding, but it just covers a period in time, he said.
From the first CARES act, the MTA received $3.9 billion, NJ Transit received $1.43 billion and SEPTA received $644 million. The PATH rail system was not eligible for funding.
Officials hope a second CARES act could help cover additional costs for employee COVID-19 testing, providing protective gear and sanitizing equipment and stations.
“We face staggering fare and revenue losses, losses to our operating subsidies and the cost of vehicle social distancing,” said Leslie S. Richards, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority general manager, which also serves parts of South Jersey.
“(SEPTA) farebox revenue is almost down to zero. The revenue will hopefully come back,” Richards said. “We also depend on the state for 50% of our revenues and the state has been hit hard.”
NJ Transit and SEPTA officials said they did not have estimates of how much those agencies would need from a second CARES bill. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority estimated it faces a $10.4 billion revenue deficit in 2020 and 2021, said Patrick Foye, MTA chairman and CEO.
Federal officials must recognize the ongoing emergency and role of transit as economic drivers (and) agencies that transport essential workers,” Foye said. “This is a national disaster that requires an ongoing national defense.”
So far, transit agencies have been moving essential workers and have adjusted schedules to serve them, while reducing service during other times to save money,
“We’ve been operating as an essential service. We need to look at how essential services should be funded, Richards said. “We are hundreds of millions of dollars behind (in revenue) in this fiscal year.”
Without additional aid, transit agencies could be forced to use capital money, budgeted for new equipment and infrastructure projects, to pay operating expenses or make cutbacks that could stall or hamper economic recoveries, officials said.
If additional funding isn’t allocated, commuters will see an immediate and longer term effect, Foye said.
“The immediate impact will be on our ability to carry essential workers, which would be a terrible result,” he said. “The long term (effect) is to slow and stunt the economic recovery and productivity.”
An additional 37,000 construction jobs created by transit projects could also be at stake, without additional funding, said Larry I. Willis, AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department president.
A loss of transit service could affect all commuters by increasing gridlock and traffic, according to a study cited by Bob Powers, San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit general manager.
Discussions are underway on a bi-partisan bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-NJ and Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana that could provide $500 million to states.
The bill provides state and local governments with flexibility to use the funding to cover COVID expenses and revenue losses, which could be used to cover transit losses, if a state’s governor decides to allocate funds there, said Steven Sandberg, a Menendez spokesman.
“There is also precedent… the U.S. Government has bailed out Wall Street in the midst of many crises, they bailed out major corporations and they can step up and bail out public transit and recognize it for the nationally important role it plays,” said John Samuelson Transport Workers Union president.