Public transportation systems are in dire straits as the Covid-19 pandemic has cut into their ridership and revenue. They’re counting on increased federal aid to survive until ridership returns to normal. Most expect to cut staff or service unless they receive added funding, according to a recent survey from the American Public Transportation Association, which represents more than 1,500 public and private transportation organizations. And eight in 10 large agencies are considering delaying or canceling new projects to address budget shortages, the survey found.
“It could be do or die,” said a CEO of a major transit agency, who requested that CNN Business not use their name, for fear of retaliation should President Donald Trump be re-elected.
Congress provided $25 billion in relief to transportation agencies under the CARES Act, but the overwhelmingly majority of that funding has already been spent, according to the American Public Transportation Association. The association has since called for $32 billion in additional relief to help transit systems.
A stimulus proposal with transit aid passed the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives earlier this month, but no deal has been reached with the Senate and Trump administration. It appears unlikely that transportation agencies will receive any fresh funding until after the election, if at all. The office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Some experts say that public transportation funding has become increasingly political, adding to the woes of transit systems that are already struggling to survive the pandemic.
“For most of my lifetime, red administrations have favored highways and blue have favored mass transit, but the contrast has never been as stark as it is today,” Jeff Speck, a city planner and author of the book “Walkable City” told CNN Business. “[Agencies] just have to hope that a blue victory flips federal policy back to caring about poor people who can’t afford cars.”
A Federal Transit Administration grant that was announced this month will take into consideration, according to a federal document detailing the grant, a September Trump administration memo that called for reviewing funding to state and local government recipients of federal funds that are “permitting anarchy, violence, and destruction in American cities.”
A spokesman for Portland, Oregon, which was named in the memo and which features transit options like buses, light rail and commuter rail, said the city is reviewing its legal options surrounding the administration’s designation.
Jarrett Walker, a transportation consultant based in Portland, Oregon, told CNN Business that he’s concerned about the ripple effects that transit’s struggles could have on the entire country.
“Many transit agencies do not know how they will get though 2021 without more help,” Walker said. “It’s a disaster for the entire country if New York cannot function. It’s a disaster for the entire country if Washington, DC cannot function.”
Spokespersons for the transit systems in New York and Washington, DC declined to comment for this story. Their financial woes have emerged in the wake of an unprecedented pandemic.
Walker recalled how when he began closely following transportation in the 1970s, Oregon’s Republican governor and US senators supported efforts to invest in Portland’s light rail, limit sprawl, and replace a freeway with a park.
“I’m keen to get back to a time when even elected officials who didn’t represent cities understood that cities were important and that public transit, which is just foundational to the functioning of a city, has to work,” Walker said.
The CEO of the major transit agency said the high stakes of the election go beyond potential financial support. The CEO said there’s a night-and-day difference between the Trump administration and Democratic nominee Joe Biden on the topic of masks, which the CEO believes are critical to restoring transit ridership. A New York Times report said that the White House blocked a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order to require masks on public transportation. CNN Business has not corroborated the report. The White House did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Biden has said he’d insist on mask use on transit. The CEO said that if riders know masks are required, they’re likely to feel safer, and are more likely to choose to ride public transportation.
Transit officials interviewed for this story pointed to Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan that he promised in his 2016 presidential campaign hasn’t been followed through on.
They say that Biden, a regular rider of trains, seems to have a more robust plan for transportation, and may be more likely to follow through given his background. Biden has called for providing every American city with 100,000 or more residents with high quality, zero-emissions public transportation, such as light rail and bus lines.
Michael Allegra, a retired Utah transportation official who previously led efforts to build out the red state’s rail and bus service, recalled high hopes about Trump’s infrastructure plans. While he said he saw that no ground was lost in Utah, needed investments in infrastructure also didn’t happen. Allegra said he’s personally optimistic about both candidates, and noted that Biden was riding Amtrak during his campaign.
“We all look at those little things and say there’s some understanding by Biden and his team about the value of public transportation,” Allegra said. “We’re optimistic on both fronts, but certainly with Biden.”