Transit Has Been Battered by Coronavirus. What’s Ahead May Be Worse.

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Credit…Etienne Laurent/EPA, via Shutterstock

Fare revenue has vanished across the country as transit riders have. Even those essential workers still taking the bus or train aren’t generating much money for agencies strained by the coronavirus pandemic. Many systems have moved to free service, or stopped policing fares. It’s just too risky for bus drivers if anyone comes near the farebox a foot away.

As dire as this moment seems, however, something more worrisome lies ahead.

Across Illinois, transit agencies rely for the bulk of their budgets on sales taxes that will dwindle as household spending does. In Portland, Ore., the payroll taxes that fund transit will decline as unemployment rises. In San Francisco, the municipal transit system gets nearly twice as much revenue from parking fees and fines as from transit fares. Those have disappeared, too, and will lag in an economy where fewer people commute to work.

Uber and Lyft taxes, gas taxes, highway tolls, advertising dollars — all of these ways communities fund transit are shrinking. In Philadelphia, free rides for older passengers are paid for in part by revenue from the state lottery. During the last recession, even lottery proceeds plummeted.

The cumulative effect is that mass transit faces a future potentially uglier than the period after the Great Recession, when many agencies made deep service cuts that took a decade to rebound from. And nearly all of the ways they will have to adapt indefinitely — cleaning stations more frequently, running vehicles below capacity — will be costly.

“The number of scenarios that we have to plan for is staggering,” said Jeffrey Tumlin, the director of transportation for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

What if agencies have to maintain this strange status quo, running nearly empty buses for second-shift nurses, into the summer? What if unemployment reaches 30 percent? What if they idle vehicles for so long they fall out of working condition? What if they must lay off the only mechanics who know their way around streetcars?

What if the economy comes right back — but transit riders are afraid to?

“It will be years before we get back to normal, under even the best-case scenario,” Mr. Tumlin said.

The $2 trillion federal rescue bill passed by Congress includes $25 billion for transit agencies, nearly three times what the federal government spends annually on transit. But even that will go quickly.

“This is a one-time shot,” said Phillip Washington, the C.E.O. of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “What we’re dealing with is an ongoing thing — not to mention the challenge it’s going to be to build up our ridership after this is over. 1.2 million people aren’t going to come rushing back to the system tomorrow.”

L.A. County Metro expects to receive between $700 million and $800 million in rescue funds. That’s the same amount the agency has projected it will lose from sales tax revenue through the fall.

“The federal funding may get us through the peak of this pandemic,” said Karl Gnadt, the managing director of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District in Illinois. “The real concern is what’s next. At a time when unemployment is going to be rising and public transit becomes more and more critical, our funding is going to be going away. And we will be seeing significant service cuts.”

The federal money may buy agencies time to contract more gradually, Mr. Tumlin suggested. Maybe they can wait for operators to retire, avoiding more layoffs. But eventually, service will shrink. Fares may rise.

That is the opposite of what Mr. Gnadt’s agency did during the last recession, when it lowered the cost of transit passes and increased service, in a bid to aid workers and lift the economy.

“I think it’s going to be very, very difficult this time to be a part of the solution,” Mr. Gnadt said.

The immediate future is upside down. On beautiful spring days, agencies are operating with snowstorm levels of ridership and service. They’re running Sunday schedules on Tuesdays. In college towns, they started summer service in late March.

They are spending their communications budgets begging riders to stay away. They are deliberately running larger vehicles to leave more empty seats so that riders can be at a safe distance.

San Francisco shuttered its entire Muni rail system — something that didn’t happen even after the 1906 earthquake — in part to redirect cleaning crews from little-used train stations to essential buses. In Washington, D.C., the metro is running eight-car trains just so operators and maintenance staff can be alone in their own cars for social distancing. In New Orleans, workers are rushing to install plexiglass they’ve never needed to protect bus drivers from assault — to protect them now from microbes.

In Los Angeles, where the region’s notorious traffic has disappeared, early bus arrivals have grown more common. And no one’s celebrating it.

“What makes you laugh makes you cry,” said Jim Gallagher, the chief operations officer for L.A. County Metro.

The cutbacks in service do not save agencies much money; their biggest operating expenses lie in their payrolls. And although they have largely eliminated overtime pay, many are still trying to pay all their workers even as they slash service.

The federal aid will be particularly helpful because it can be used for operating expenses like payroll. That’s a change from the past two decades, when all but the smallest agencies have been barred from using federal funds for operations. Federal money has been meant, instead, for capital projects like new buses or station repairs — things that won’t particularly help faltering systems right now.

That longstanding federal policy has contributed to the precarious way transit is funded across the country. Many agencies also receive little dedicated state funding.

“The way in which transit is funded here is about as bad as something could be constructed if one was trying to construct a bad system,” said Dow Constantine, the county executive in King County, Wash., which gets little transit support from the state. King County Metro relies instead on a local sales tax, “a primary funding source that is wildly volatile and supremely regressive.”

Rescuing agencies would require not just more money, but also different political choices about how to generate and protect that money. And it would require looking at transit more like essential police or fire infrastructure, and less like a business whose customers should keep it afloat.

“It’s not a business,” said Jarrett Walker, a transit consultant. “And nowhere has that been more obvious than now. The sensible fiduciary thing to do would be to shut things down as quickly as possible, furlough the entire staff and wait. They’re not doing that because they’re expected to provide an essential service.”

The same essential workers riding transit now — grocery store clerks, home health aides, hospital cafeteria workers, cleaning staff — will still need transit in the future. And so what is likely to happen to transit will be a long second blow to the people currently bearing the brunt of the coronavirus crisis.

“In a world where public transit systems are cut to the bone, or emerge as a shadow of their former selves, it basically means a lot less mobility for low-income people,” said Steven Higashide, the director of research for the TransitCenter in New York. “That means fewer opportunities and a smaller life.”

That would be felt in New York, where subway stations serving poorer neighborhoods have remained busy during the coronavirus crisis.

In New Orleans, the transit system has not fully recovered from Hurricane Katrina. Its fleet of 420 buses was wiped out by flooding. Today, the agency has 142 buses, typically running at capacity. The long path of rebuilding service will be even harder now.

In Washington, D.C., rail ridership began to grow last year after years of lapsed repairs and safety crises.

“This obviously is a kick in the gut for us because we were moving in that direction, we were having the public behind us,” said Paul Wiedefeld, the general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. But he hopes that people will remember what role the agency is serving today: “When everything else goes south,” he said, “we’re there.”

That sounds like the beginning of a public-service pitch for transit’s future. But it’s less clear what the billboards could say to entice skittish Americans back onto packed trains and buses.

“That is a completely different kind of marketing campaign,” said Carolyn Gonot, the C.E.O. of the Utah Transit Authority in Salt Lake City. A few weeks ago, when there was so much else to think about, she asked her marketing department to begin thinking about what that campaign would look like.

As society transitions to a post-pandemic world, it’s likely that we’ll think differently about what transit itself should look like.

“The way I grew up, hey, if the train was packed and you had straphangers like in New York — or where I’m from in Chicago — that was the norm,” said Mr. Washington, the head of L.A. County Metro. Packed trains meant a successful system, an efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

Imagine in the future, Mr. Washington said, if agencies must not only create space between riders, but mandate it. That would run counter to their past goals and cost more.

“I don’t know how New York and L.A. and Chicago survive in terms of mobility if it comes to that,” he said.

In the Seattle area, Mr. Constantine says people will eventually return to transit, because the region has come to rely on it far more than even a decade ago, before tech companies like Amazon created thousands of jobs downtown.

“The economy will come back,” Mr. Constantine said. “And there are not going to be more roads.”

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