Organizations and officials ask Congress to help public transit during the coronavirus

An empty Metro station by Mike Maguire licensed under Creative Commons.

Ridership on public transit systems nationwide has plummeted and many, including Metro, are actively discouraging people from riding unless absolutely necessary. This is going to obliterate transit systems' budgets, and so over 220 elected officials and organizations signed a letter to Congress on March 18 asking for emergency funding for transit in a coronavirus relief bill.

Transportation for America, an organization which advocates in Congress around transportation on behalf of local communities and their leaders, organized the letter. Greater Greater Washington and DC Sustainable Transportation were among the organizations signing on, following approval from the GGWash Advocacy Committee (which decides whether to sign letters) and DCST's board. (Transportation for America's parent organization Smart Growth America is also GGWash's 501(c)(3) fiscal sponsor.)

TransitCenter has estimated agencies will lose $26-38 billion a year as a result of the coronavirus. Yet many workers still rely on transit and whenever "social distancing" ends, cities and states will need transit operating for the economy to quickly recover.

Since the letter, over the weekend, drafts of Senate and House relief bills have emerged, and they do provide some transit assistance. The Senate bill includes $20 billion for transit nationwide, of which $16 billion would go to urban transit and $4 billion for rural. The draft House bill has $25 billion: about $14 billion for urban, $2 billion for rural, and the rest under "State of Good Repair" and "Fast Growth/High Density" formulas.

Currently, the Senate bill has failed two procedural votes as Democrats objected to many provisions including a lack of oversight of how the money is spent (in general, not about transit), while the House bill is still a draft. Congress is a ways from passing a bill, though something is very likely to eventually emerge.

A Metro map showing ridership on Sunday, March 22 in 2020 versus 2019. Image by WMATA via MetroReasons.

T4America highlights problems with giving transit funds on the old formulas

All of these formulas (including the urban and rural transit funds, which are their own formulas under the law) are designed to fund capital projects like construction and maintenance. The federal government generally contributes money for capital but not operations. However, as the T4America letter notes:

Existing formula programs are designed to support capital investments. Simply stated, they are not designed to address the unique circumstances public transit agencies, riders, and local communities are facing during this public health crisis. In addition, many public transit agencies are precluded from receiving federal and state formula funds but will still be significantly impacted. We strongly urge Congress to put additional funds in the hands of transit agencies that need it most for immediate operational and cleaning assistance and to ensure that these systems can continue to provide their essential service.

Solutions listed in the letter include letting agencies use capital dollars for operating this year (but then back-filling them so they still can make their capital investments in the future), and ignoring the record-low ridership numbers when computing next year's formula, since each year's ridership is usually a part of the formula to decide how much money each system gets the next year.

There are more issues for the stimulus than transit

Many transit advocates have also been joining calls from organizations nationwide to ensure that a stimulus bill helps workers, local businesses, and families first and foremost instead of primarily helping executives of large companies or shareholders (and, in the case of cruise lines, foreign companies which don't register their ships in the United States to avoid labor laws).

Environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council have asked for the stimulus to aid sustainable energy practices and increase development of clean technology instead of propping up oil and gas industries.

On transit, T4America has a contact tool to reach out to elected officials to ask them to include transit in the stimulus.