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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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However, Rentschler conceded that the advocacy "resulted in a better plan."

Two weeks later, AC Transit announced a stronger health-and-safety plan, including providing masks and hand sanitizer for passengers as well as workers, plexiglass shields separating drivers from passengers, six feet of social distancing, new and stronger air filters, and disinfectant fogging added to the nightly cleaning of buses.

Board Director Chis Peeples said these efforts had been in the works for months but were held up by practical challenges such as designing the shields and finding the right kind of plexiglass. Yvonne Williams, AC Transit's union president, challenged those statements, saying both the MTC and the AC Transit plans were "the result of pressure they got from riders, Bike East Bay, Democratic Socialists of America, Urban Habitat, and Genesis," among others, including the union.

BART, meanwhile, received high marks for safety from its union president, Jesse Hunt, as well as from public health experts.

Dean Winslow, a Stanford University infectious disease specialist, told Berkleyside that riding BART is "probably somewhat less risky" than going to the grocery store. BART's ventilation system fully replaces the air in each car every 70 seconds, far less time than it takes to infect someone with coronavirus. Hunt said six-foot social distancing—made possible by BART's decision to make all trains 10 cars long during the pandemic—is also key.

BART, however, gets an unusually large percentage of its income from riders—around 65 percent—so the drop in ridership blew a big hole in its budget. Many other agencies are heavily dependent not only on fares, but also on sales tax revenue, both of which have plummeted since March.

The Big Problem

For this fiscal year, Bay Area transit agencies are getting by with money from the CARES Act, which gave MTC $1.3 billion to distribute among them. But next fiscal year, starting in July 2021, many agencies face budget deficits that could lead to "drastic service cuts and job losses," said Nicole Wong, of the environmental justice organization Green for All. At the MTC's September meeting, she and other speakers from Voices for Public Transportation urged the agency to address this crisis.

McMillan, head of the MTC, said the commission will help transit agencies prevent cuts by giving them $500,000 from its share of CARES Act money, but this amount pales in comparison to the funding required. MTC staff also committed to re-examining the budget to find additional funds.

Nathaniel Arnold, an AC Transit bus driver, said the important funding source is not the agency's operating budget, but rather its control of "billions of dollars from numerous [state and federal] funding sources." He and other advocates—such as Dave Campbell, of Bike East Bay, who urged the MTC to "move money from freeway projects to stabilize transit funding over the next few years"—want MTC to redirect those funds to help transit agencies recover from the pandemic.

Mallon, of Silicon Valley Youth Climate Action, emphasized another key demand of transit riders: more money for operating funds to better serve people who depend on buses, rather than "big flashy capital projects" like extending rail lines.

"As a rider," Mallon said, the current shortage of operating funds means "service is not very frequent—you wait half an hour or an hour, especially at night." She described traveling home to San Jose from Voices for Public Transportation meetings. When she gets off BART, if she misses the connection to her bus, "I'm sitting there for an hour waiting in the cold." More operating funds would "improve the quality of life" of people like her who depend on public transportation, she said.

In May, MTC formed a Blue Ribbon Transit Recovery Task Force, made up of public officials and representatives of community organizations, whose first job was disbursing federal CARES Act funding. With that done, the task force is charged with making immediate plans for transit recovery from the pandemic as well as a long-term plan to "re-shape the region's transit system into a more connected, more efficient, and more user-focused mobility network." The task force's next meeting, on Oct. 26, will discuss specific plans for the next phase of its work.

Whatever their differences, however, unions, community groups and public officials agree with MTC Commissioner Spering that the commission won't have enough money to bail out all the transit agencies. All parties have said they are committed to join forces in advocating for more funding for public transportation.

"That's one of our primary jobs," Rentschler said, but "it's too early to tell" where the money will come from. Prospects for another major federal coronavirus relief bill, of course, depend on the outcome of November's election. Last week, President Trump said he was pulling out of Covid-relief negotiations.

Another possible source is Proposition 15, which is on the November state ballot and, if passed, would make it possible to raise property taxes on corporations. Businesses have long enjoyed low taxes due to Prop. 13, which passed in 1978 and is supported mainly by voters looking to limit property-tax increases for homeowners. If Prop. 15 passes, significant increases in property-tax revenue could become available for transit agencies. AC Transit, in particular, gets a large percentage of its budget from property taxes.

Rentschler predicted that the "big game in town" is more likely to be a regional funding source. "The likelihood that the state will have the votes to significantly increase public transit funding is pretty low," Rentschler said, especially as California struggles to rebuild its economy from the coronavirus-induced crisis.



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