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

click to enlarge BUSTED: The coronavirus pandemic has created a ‘death spiral’ in funding for AC Transit, BART and other public transit agencies in the Bay Area.

PHOTO CREDIT: HARRY_NL VIA FLICKR

BUSTED: The coronavirus pandemic has created a ‘death spiral’ in funding for AC Transit, BART and other public transit agencies in the Bay Area.

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."

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.

Efforts to create a nine-county public transportation funding measure for the Bay Area, which were underway before the covid pandemic, have stalled.

"We're going to need new revenue," Mallon said. "We're going to need to focus on a Green New Deal for transit, to get the operators the money to dramatically increase transit and improve people's lives."

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