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Transpandemic: Can BART, AC Transit survive economic toll of coronavirus?

Bay Area public transportation hangs in the balance as ridership, funding plunge due to outbreak

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The Covid-19 pandemic threatens not only the health of public transportation workers and riders, but also the health of Bay Area public transportation itself. Elected officials, public transit unions and community organizations have, for once, found common ground, as a loss of riders and revenue has led to an "existential crisis," said Bob Allen, director of policy and advocacy campaigns at the nonprofit Urban Habitat.

BART ridership now hovers around 50,000 people a day, or about 12 percent of its pre-pandemic level, according to a recent staff report from the region's largest rail system. Ridership on AC Transit, which operates 30 bus lines across Alameda and Contra Costa counties, fell 90 percent and is just "creeping back up," said director Chris Peeples, an at-large director for the transit agency's board.

This poses serious problems for the economy, equity and the environment, said Hayley Currier, policy advocacy manager for the advocacy agency TransForm. "Public transportation is required for a green and just recovery."

In response to the crisis—as of this week more than 108,000 people in the Bay Area have been infected and more than 1,600 have died—a coalition of Bay Area transit workers, riders, community members and environmental organizations called Voices for Public Transportation has ramped up advocacy since mid-summer. The group originally formed to advocate for a regional funding measure through a progressive tax designed by and for the communities served by transit. Over the summer this mission morphed to push the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to adopt strong regional health and safety requirements for public transportation. At the MTC's August meeting, organizers presented a petition with 2,500 signatures demanding the adoption of a 10-point safety program recommended by the national Amalgamated Transit Union.

Now that the MTC, AC Transit, BART and other transit agencies have created new safety plans, Voices for Public Transportation has shifted its focus to the funding crisis while still pushing for more safety measures. Transit agencies' revenue has plummeted, not only because of the loss of fares, but also because many agencies receive significant revenue from sales taxes, which have fallen sharply. More than a billion dollars from the federal CARES Act helped plug the budget hole this year, but prospects for the next fiscal year are "glaringly terrifying," said Currier.

MTC officials in September said they were discussing ways to find money to avoid "a death spiral of service cuts."

Safety First

Armando Garcia Barbosa, a member of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265, was one of two dozen speakers at the August MTC meeting who denounced the agency's draft health and safety plan as inadequate. Dozens of Bay Area transit workers have contracted the virus. "Our members face ongoing exposure to COVID-19 on a daily basis, with a high probability of being a super-spreader," Garcia Barbosa said.

Essential workers who depend on transit are also concerned.

Carol Taylor, a member of Service Employees International Union Local 2015, which represents workers in home healthcare and convalescent homes, said "people on transit today are especially vulnerable. Retail workers are exposed more than others, convalescent homes are hot spots. We have to assume every passenger is contagious." To minimize this risk, she added, some of her co-workers "are walking a couple extra miles a day—and most of our members are older."

Many speakers said MTC should require transit agencies to provide masks and hand sanitizer for passengers as well as workers. MTC Executive Director Therese McMillan noted that the state already requires people to wear masks in public spaces. But not everybody complies. Some Bay Area bus drivers have faced assault by passengers after they reminded those passengers to wear masks.

"The best way to get compliance is to give people what they need to comply," said Victoria Fierce, a transit rider and candidate for an AC Transit director-at-large seat.

Another controversial element of the draft plan was its recommendation that transit riders maintain at least three feet of social distancing, despite the six-foot social distancing recommendation from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with the state of California. The three-foot recommendation was based on World Health Organization guidelines and the experiences of some European countries.

Jovanka Beckles, a director candidate for AC Transit's District 1 seat, echoed other speakers when she said the three-foot recommendation was "a huge insult to transit workers and working-class people who ride transit."

The main objection to the plan was that it would "fail to provide concrete standards or specific requirements," said Monica Mallon, a bus rider and member of Silicon Valley Youth Climate Action who has become a leader of Voices for Public Transportation.

Commissioner Jim Spering, who represents Solano County, responded that MTC has "neither the authority nor the expertise to dictate specific health and safety standards." He also told advocates, "This is a first step. We want to continue to work with you on this."

'An Incredible Victory'

At the following meeting in September, MTC staff presented a draft online "dashboard" with a five-star rating system to score local transit agencies' performance. The social-distancing standard had been changed to six feet, but there was no mention of providing PPE to riders.

The MTC plan was still "not good enough, but it was an incredible victory," Currier said. "They wouldn't have written the plan if we hadn't pushed."

Randy Rentschler, director of legislation and communications at the MTC, disagreed with that conclusion. MTC wrote the plan because it needs "customers to come back to public transit," he said. "We need to do everything we can [to get] people feeling confident riding public transit."

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