As recovery bills languish, transit systems cut service

D.C.’s Metro is the latest system to announce drastic service reductions as Congress remains unable to agree on an economic relief package

The capital's Metro system announced drastic service cuts as ridership and revenue fell because of the coronavirus. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
The capital's Metro system announced drastic service cuts as ridership and revenue fell because of the coronavirus. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 2, 2020 at 6:00am

As if the rhetorical predictions weren’t already dire, Washington’s transit agency threw down a gauntlet when it released its fiscal 2022 budget proposal this week.

Nineteen closed stations. Service scaled back to one train every half-hour. No weekend service. All on the doorstep of Congress.

The agency’s budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, released in the aftermath of a projected $500 million budget shortfall, was the latest cry for help from a transportation mode that is facing an increasingly drastic predicament.

On Tuesday, transit agencies got a bit of encouragement. A bipartisan group of senators offered a $908 billion pandemic support proposal with $45 billion for transportation systems, including $15 billion for transit.

[Bipartisan group proposes $908 billion coronavirus ‘bridge’ aid package]

Only airlines, which would get $17 billion under the bipartisan plan, would receive more in the transportation sector.

Whether that proposal advances — and early indications from the White House and from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who released his own targeted bill late Tuesday, are that it will not — analysts say Congress is finally learning the hard way about the dire straits transit agencies are in. A summary of McConnell’s bill made no mention of transportation or transit.

The proposed cuts to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority come after New York’s MTA on Nov. 18 announced “doomsday” cuts of as much as 40 percent of service on subways and buses, as well as 50 percent on commuter rail lines, along with more than 9,000 layoffs.

Other systems

Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago are among other systems eyeing cuts, according to Paul Skoutelas, president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association.

His association has estimated that transit agencies will need $32 billion to stay afloat. They received $25 billion in the $2 trillion stimulus bill passed in March, but they quickly exhausted it as the pandemic dragged on.

A second aid bill that passed the House in May included $15.75 billion for transit. That bill went nowhere in the Senate.

The latest proposal, advanced Tuesday by a bipartisan group of senators led by Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., would also set aside $4 billion for airports, $1 billion for Amtrak and $8 billion for the motorcoach industry, which has asked for federal help for months, most recently in a plea to congressional leadership sent Monday.

While all modes have struggled, WMATA’s bleak budget proposal, released Monday night, reflects the fact that public transit overall is “in very, very desperate straits,” Skoutelas said. And while the $15 billion in the bipartisan proposal is “a positive step,” he said, “it’s not enough.”

Adie Tomer, head of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution, said WMATA, which received direct federal subsidies, attracts Congress’ attention in a way other transit agencies do not.

“WMATA is always top of mind for Congress,” he said. “Legislatively, it’s the one transit system they directly support.”

But that hasn’t always helped other transit agencies that have struggled for decades.

Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for the Riders Alliance, a group that advocates for improved public transit in New York City, said part of it is a disconnect: Constituents and staff might use transit, but lawmakers are less likely to.

“Congress doesn’t use public transportation,” he said.

Highways first

And while transit agencies exist as small-town bus lines as well as big-city subways, lawmakers from rural districts have often prioritized highways over public transportation.

Harvey Miller, director of the Center for Urban and Regional Analysis at Ohio State University, said public transit has been “neglected,” compared with highways. He said all forms of transportation require some level of public subsidy. Highways, for example, require construction and highway patrols.

“Yet when it comes to public transit we say, ‘Why isn’t that making money?’” Miller said. “We don’t have a level playing field in the U.S. for the different modes of transportation.”

But Marc Scribner, a senior transportation analyst for the libertarian Reason Foundation, said the declines in transit ridership may become long-term. He said many of the affluent workers who took transit before the pandemic may opt to continue telecommuting after the pandemic ends.

“It’s not clear that there is a path for transit in the U.S. to recover to pre-2019 levels,” he said.

That leaves essential workers and lower-income workers.

Scribner said while he doesn’t see an outright elimination of transit, “a rightsizing of transit could be necessary.”

“All trends are working against transit except one,” he said. “It’s politically popular.”

But Tomer argues that transit is essential to economic recovery. Essential workers, he said, are “imperative to keeping the economies going in these localities.”

That fact alone, he said, might likely spur lawmakers personally unfamiliar with transit to act.

“Even if you don’t use public transit, you depend upon people who use public transit,” said Miller.

Scott Goldstein, policy director for Transportation for America, which advocates for transit, said he’s hopeful that WMATA’s proposed budget attracts the attention of lawmakers in a way that other cuts have not.

When transit agencies cut service after the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, “the economy came back, but service did not come back for years,” he said.

“You can’t just restore service once it’s lost. The workforce moves on.”