Group of transit agencies call on Congress to provide up to $36 billion in additional emergency funding

July 15, 2020
As the COVID-19 crisis continues, agencies across the U.S. are experiencing financial stress and preparing to face potentially difficult cuts in service and/or capital projects should the requested relief not materialize.

A request for Congress to provide the U.S. transit industry with an additional $32-$36 billion is being supported by 27 transit agencies and the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). About half of the agencies that signed a letter sent to House and Senate leadership participated in a virtual press conference on July 14 to state their case.  

While all agency representatives on the virtual press call expressed their appreciation for the $25 billion provided to the industry through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was signed into law in late March, the true financial and community impacts of the pandemic were not understood.  

As Nathaniel Ford, CEO of the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, explained, “It is clear that a one-time allocation will not be enough to sustain us into the next year and beyond, so I urge Congress to build upon the momentum from the CARES Act.”

A round-up of the stated financial implications of the pandemic on transit include:

  • $700-$800 million/month loss experienced by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which will also exhaust its CARES Act funding in July;
  • $1.8 billion loss over two years for Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro);
  • $500-$800 million loss through Fiscal Year 2023 for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA);
  • Regional Transportation District (RTD) of Denver is facing a deficit in 2021 of between $100-$150 million, which is an improvement over initial estimates that put the deficit at more than $200 million; and
  • Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is facing a deficit of $975 million over a three-year period, which includes $40 million per month in lost passenger revenue.

In early May, an economic analysis by EBP, US Inc., estimated U.S. transit agency losses could reach $48.8 billion in 2020 and while that number is staggering, it is not the only impact.

The human costs of the pandemic were also noted with Alex Wiggins, CEO of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, sharing that 14 percent of the authority’s workforce tested positive for COVID-19. Floun’say Caver, Ph.D., acting general manager and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA), explained that following the first month of Ohio’s stay-at-home order the national unemployment rate was 14.7 percent, but for Cuyahoga County the unemployment rate was 60 percent higher at 23.5 percent.

All agencies on the press call reduced service, but not to the same extent that ridership has gone down and many referenced the efforts undertaken not only to increase cleanliness of their systems to fight the pandemic but to better serve their communities.

“COVID-19 has compelled us to become more agile, innovative, customer-focused and strategic,” said Caver.

This was a thought echoed by Austin Capital Metro President and CEO Randy Clarke, who noted the agency was one of the first in the U.S. to pivot the use of its paratransit vehicles to food delivery.

The agencies that signed the letter move nearly 20 million people per day and represent regions that account for 44 percent of the metropolitan gross domestic product. Should the agencies not receive the requested additional funding, service, employees and capital programs – including parts of the multi-year, billion-dollar expansions of the L.A. Metro and Sound Transit systems – are at risk of being reduced or eliminated.

BART General Manager Bob Powers said transit needed to remain an option for those for whom it was the only option. He noted the mobility divide can perpetuate economic inequities using the explanation that during the Bay Area’s shelter in place order, of the riders who continued to use BART, 59 percent did not have access to a car, 81 percent were people of color and 35 percent have household incomes under $50,000/year.

“Our country will not experience a full recovery if the transit systems that move our economy are not fully functional,” the coalition’s letter states.

‘Things have taken a turn for the worse’

In a separate letter to House and Senate leadership, APTA President and CEO Paul Skoutelas also urged Congress to provide additional emergency funding to the transit industry.

“On May 7, 2020, we wrote to you requesting at least $23.8 billion in COVID-19 Emergency Response and Recovery Funding to help public transit agencies continue to provide a critical lifeline to essential workers and to help our communities rebuild our economy,” said Skoutelas. “Over the past two months, in many states, things have taken a turn for the worse—coronavirus cases are spiking, governors and mayors are renewing stay-at-home orders and businesses are shutting down. In fact, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority identified additional needs, which would result in a national need of $32 billion to $36 billion.”

Skoutelas’ letter references the HEROES Act and Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation in America (INVEST in America) Act that have passed the House and are awaiting action in the Senate.  

The HEROES Act, which was sponsored by U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY-17), includes $15.75 billion for the transit industry. Where the CARES Act provided funding to every transit provider who receives federal formula funding, the HEROES Act would limit the majority of funding relief ($11.75 billion) to larger agencies serving urbanized areas of three million people or more with $4 billion going to grants.

The INVEST in America Act is a five-year surface transportation reauthorization proposal that includes more than $100 billion over five years for the transit industry including COVID-related relief.

Skoutelas urged that any additional emergency relief funding be divided with 80 percent distributed through the existing Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Emergency Relief Program and the remaining 20 percent to be distributed through an immediate infusion for FTA formula grants.

“Now is the time to invest more in our nation’s public transportation infrastructure to support jobs, reconnect Americans and build the necessary infrastructure network to provide critical public transit services and economic opportunities for all,” said Skoutelas.

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Group Editorial Director

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine and group editorial director of the Infrastructure and Aviation Group at Endeavor Business Media. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the editorial direction of the group and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.