By Scott Calvert
Public transit agencies across the U.S. are cutting service and
reducing their workforces as they face a cash crunch that is
worsening along with the coronavirus pandemic.
Ridership is stuck at historically low levels and the current
Covid-19 surge has further dimmed odds that large numbers of riders
will return to buses, subways and commuter railroads soon,
officials say. Federal funding that agencies received from the
spring's relief package is starting to run out, and local tax
revenues that support many transit systems have shriveled.
In San Francisco, the Muni transit system faces the biggest
crisis of its 110-year history, said Jeffrey Tumlin, transportation
director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Bus
boardings are down 70%, and transit revenue has plunged 93%.
"We've had to cut expenditures massively in order to keep
operating. We are shrinking as rapidly as we can through
attrition," Mr. Tumlin said, citing more than 800 vacancies.
Officials have slashed spending on supplies to the point where
mechanics haven't always had parts to fix buses, he said.
The agency has eliminated half its transit lines and focused on
serving essential workers and neighborhoods with the fewest
Even so, Mr. Tumlin said, "we leave hundreds of essential
workers behind at the curb every day, on a dozen of our lines,
because we've exceeded the social-distancing requirements."
Dispatching more buses isn't an option, he said: "We are out of
In Washington, D.C., the Metro system's weekday rail ridership
is about 88% lower than normal, agency figures show, with many
people working from home and few tourists in town. Bus ridership is
down nearly 60%, and the system isn't charging bus riders because
passengers board at the back to reduce the spread of the virus.
The agency expects $182 million in revenue this fiscal year,
down from $825 million a year before the pandemic, said Paul
Wiedefeld, general manager and CEO of the Washington Metropolitan
Area Transit Authority. Metro will offer retirement incentives,
with a goal of cutting 1,400 of the agency's 12,000 positions. If
too few employees retire, the agency will have to resort to
layoffs, he said.
Funds from the federal Cares Act relief package will run out by
March, he said, and further service and job cuts may be
The nation's biggest transit agency, New York's Metropolitan
Transportation Authority, recently warned it might have to cut
service on the subway by 40% and on its two commuter rail systems
by half unless a federal bailout comes soon. Revenues have
plummeted due to a ridership slump and an anticipated reduction in
funds from dedicated taxes.
In Denver, the Regional Transportation District said it would
lay off about 400 of its roughly 2,600 employees in January because
of a projected $140 million deficit. In addition, many employees
will have to take furlough days and a pay cut.
"We're now between a rock and a hard place, recognizing that we
are still in the midst of this pandemic and things don't seem to be
getting better," said Debra Johnson, who took over earlier this
month as the agency's CEO and general manager.
The transit sector is calling on Congress to approve a new $32
billion aid package, joining other industries queued up for more
help from Washington.
A recent survey by the industry group American Public
Transportation Association found that six in 10 transit systems
will need to scale back service and furlough employees without
emergency federal funding.
"We do need to build this bridge from where we are in the throes
of this pandemic to when we come out," said Paul Skoutelas,
president and chief executive of the group.
Smaller transit systems are struggling as well. The bus network
in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., home to the University of Illinois,
plans to cut service by 40% in January, on top of a previous 10%
rollback, said Karl Gnadt, managing director of the
Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District.
Ridership is down 75%, largely because few students, faculty and
staff are on campus. But he said he doesn't want to alienate
remaining customers. "The bus rider has to be able to depend on the
bus being there when they need to travel," he said.
The agency expects to get about half its expected annual payment
from the university, and so far the state has sent just $7 million
of an anticipated $39 million, which constitutes its biggest
State payments to transit agencies over the summer were lower
than usual because of decreased sales tax revenue, which has since
rebounded, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of
Transportation said. "The department has no reason to believe that
the projected awards to each agency cannot be met," he said.
Meantime, the $12 million in Cares Act money that the
Champaign-Urbana transit agency received is dwindling, Mr. Gnadt
said, raising the potential for even deeper cuts and layoffs in the
"We are rapidly racing toward the fiscal cliff," he said. "I
don't want our employees to be fearful that there's a Sword of
Damocles hanging over their head. But the reality is we can't hold
Moody's Investors Service this month painted a gloomy picture of
mass transit in 2021, saying ridership would likely grow only about
30% above this year's depressed levels. It also said the rise of
remote working and changing travel patterns could cause permanent
ridership declines, a concern shared by some transit advocates.
"We don't know how many of the changes we've made will be
permanent, and how much we'll bounce back," said Beth Osborne,
director of Transportation for America, an advocacy group.
--Paul Berger contributed to this article.
Write to Scott Calvert at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
November 28, 2020 12:15 ET (17:15 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.