By Scott Bogren

Save All of Public Transit

December 15, 2020

Today (Tuesday, Dec. 15) has been set aside by many transit leaders, advocates and organizations as a day to Save Public Transit – to jointly advocate for much-needed, additional COVID-19 relief for public transit agencies facing significant service cuts in the wake of massive ridership and fare box revenue losses.

Congress seems on the verge of passing a massive pandemic relief emergency appropriations bill with what purports to be $15b set aside for public transit. CTAA has been asked to participate in this effort, to join in the effort to Save Public Transit. And join we will – but not before making clear that if this effort is true to its title, then we need to be focusing on all forms of public transit and we need to ensure that all public transit agencies, regardless of size or service area, will benefit from this extraordinary, necessary advocacy effort.

CTAA and its members understand that the largest public transit agencies in the nation must be the focus of this appropriations effort. In New York City, the MTA estimates it needs a minimum of $4b to avoid what it’s calling Doomsday Cuts. Here in Washington, D.C., WMATA projects a $500m budget shortfall while LA Metro’s deficit stands at $1.2b. It’s clear that the largest transit operators need immediate financial assistance and are facing unprecedented budgetary disaster.

CTAA’s immediate concern are small and mid-sized urban transit operators – agencies that provide millions of trips every day across the nation. Given the nature of proposed formula distributions of the $15b set aside to Save Public Transit, many of these agencies would receive no additional support from this effort. Zero. Yet these agencies are beginning to run out of their CARES Act funding allocations (or know they will run out of these funds early in 2021). Some of these emergency relief funds must be set aside for these systems, too, if our effort is truly to Save Public Transit.

Rural public transit operators received $2.2b in CARES Act funding. Set up as a reimbursement program, rural operators (through the work and partnership of their state DOTs) have not yet run out of this invaluable investment and are reliant on these funds to keep paying drivers and to maintain operations. Yet, most rural transit leaders we’ve spoken with agree that the economic impact of the global pandemic will certainly outlast their CARES Act allocations and many express great concern about the availability of local share from economically devastated communities in the near future. Further, if the economic crisis of 2008-2009 teaches us anything, it’s that rural communities bounce back much slower, economically, than their urban counterparts. That’s why CTAA and its members want to see some portion of the $15B set aside for Section 5311 operators.

Lastly, and most prominently, we point to the national network of Section 5310 transit operators who serve older adults and people with disabilities. These vital components in our national transit network, who provide trips to some of the most at-risk, vulnerable populations in our communities, have received no emergency funding related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nothing. Surely these operators need to be included in some way if we are going to Save Public Transit.

A study of the ridership trends for smaller and specialized transit agencies during the pandemic reveals some important, additional arguments for emergency appropriations for all public transit agencies. Generally speaking, these operations lost fewer trips and riders at the outset of the emergence of COVID-19 earlier in 2020, and saw their ridership bounce back more robustly this past summer and early fall. Why? These agencies and their service is essential to a great deal of their ridership. Or, as I’ve taken to saying: “You can’t telework a dialysis trip.” With so many of their trips now being offered to essential work and healthcare destinations, these systems deserve and need some form of emergency assistance alongside the biggest metropolitan transit authorities.

Finally, I want to call your attention to a potential situation that keeps me up at night. If Congress chooses to only help the largest urban transit operators with the emergency pandemic-related appropriations now under consideration, it sets up the potential for mid-sized and small-urban transit operations – to say nothing of rural and specialized operators – to face the same, dire service cuts and existential budget crises six months, a year or even two years down the road – but without any potential Congressional, federal help. Local economies in these areas – slower to recover – will be unable to assist and may more likely be seeking to cut back on their spending. State investment may follow suit. Will the entirely of the transit industry be all-in on a Save Public Transit campaign in this scenario? I surely hope so.

Public transit is a national program not a local one. Vital, important efforts to Save Public Transit need to benefit all operators. And that’s exactly what CTAA and its members are calling on the Congress to do: Save ALL Public Transit.

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The Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) and its members believe that mobility is a basic human right. From work and education to life-sustaining health care and human services programs to shopping and visiting with family and friends, mobility directly impacts quality of life.