Adjoajo, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

December 6, 2020; New York Times

In one of the many slow-motion crises emerging out of the COVID-19 economy, Christina Goldbaum and Will Wright report in the New York Times that COVID-19 has cost local public transit systems “huge amounts of revenue and threatens to cripple service for years.”

Transit agencies in the US depend on a combination of fare revenues and tax dollars. Typically, having a high percentage of income from fares is seen as a sign of high demand and fiscal health. However, just as orchestras with more earned income have fared worse than those that earn their incomes from donations amid COVID-19 for the simple reason that it is very hard to sell tickets during a pandemic, transit agencies that rely on farebox revenue face similar challenges.

According to Goldbaum and Wright, fares contribute 70 percent of the operating budget in San Francisco, 40 percent in New York City and DC, and about 33 percent in Boston. In New York City, ridership has recovered to about 30 percent of pre-pandemic levels; in Washington, DC, and San Francisco, rail passenger levels are below 15 percent of usual levels.

Overall, the American Public Transportation Association reports that mass transit usage nationwide by September had climbed to nearly 40 percent of its pre-pandemic levels from a low of 19 percent in April. But the numbers have plateaued again in recent weeks, as the spread of the novel coronavirus has accelerated.

In terms of money, New York City’s transit agency anticipates a $6.1 billion deficit next year. Officials in Boston face a $600 million budget hole, and Chicago’s transit agency anticipates a $500 million shortfall, as does Washington DC’s Metro system.

Already, there have been a number of service cuts. As Goldbaum and Wright explain, “In New York, overnight subway service has been suspended since May. In Los Angeles, bus service has been slashed nearly 30 percent and rail service has also been cut. And the Bay Area Rapid Transit rail system in San Francisco has ended late night service and pushed wait times for trains from 15 to 30 minutes.” In Atlanta, 70 of the city’s 110 bus routes were suspended in April.

The potential for future service cuts is astonishing:

  • In Boston, transit officials have indicated that weekend service on commuter rail and the city’s ferries would be shuttered entirely.
  • In Washington, DC, Metro service on weekends and late-night service is slated to be eliminated, and 19 of the 91 stations would close. A list of proposed station closures is here. Among the stations slated for possible closure are those of major tourist destinations, such as Arlington and Smithsonian, as well as College Park (the closest stop to the University of Maryland).
  • In New York City, transit officials have unveiled a plan that threatens to slash subway service by 40 percent and cut commuter rail service in half.
  • In San Francisco, the municipal transportation agency (“Muni”) says that cuts in excess of 30 percent—the current pandemic level of service cuts—are to be expected.

On a hopeful note, Goldbaum and Wright report that the $908 billion pandemic-relief package currently being considered by Congress would provide $15 billion in support for transit agencies. This is less than half of the $32 billion that transit leaders have requested, but it would likely buy some time and at least postpone service cuts.

A core challenge, however, is that it is unclear whether ridership will ever fully return to pre-pandemic levels. As Goldbaum and Wright point out, “Some commuters may end up working from home permanently; others may abandon public transit if cuts cause service to deteriorate.”

Meanwhile, the situation remains dire. “The effect on ridership in each of our agencies—subway, buses, Metro-North, Long Island Railroad—is dramatically worse than even in the Great Depression,” observes Patrick Foye, who chairs the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, New York City’s leading public transit agency.—Steve Dubb