Public transportation agencies seek billions from state as ridership plummets

Metro and other California public transit agencies have asked federal and state officials for $3.1 billion in emergency funding to avoid what they warned would be massive and permanent cuts to public transit.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority anticipates a $1.8 billion shortfall due to reduced ridership related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The California Transit Association sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom and state and federal lawmakers Monday projecting devastating service reductions across the state in the absence of emergency relief. Metro has seen ridership declines ranging between 65-75%.

“Like many public transportation agencies throughout the state, we have been forced to reduce services that provide lifeline service for essential and front line workers and disadvantaged communities,” Metro CEO Phil Washington said. “Additional state and federal resources are needed to prevent steep losses of public transportation services that our county residents desperately need.’’

Ridership fare revenue was down 97% in April and May for Long Beach Transit. In May, the last month of data that was shared with the Transit board commissioners, the agency generated just $7,246 in fares. In May 2019 it brought in over $1.2 million.

“The fare numbers are not telling the whole story because we’re not collecting fares,” said Michael Gold, Long Beach Transit’s Executive Director and Vice President Customer Relations and Communications.

Gold said the agency stopped collecting fares in April and asked riders to enter buses through the rear doors to help with social distancing efforts.

Ridership overall is down about 80%, Gold said, which has reversed a trend of growth that Long Beach Transit had seen before the pandemic. The agency now worries whether those riders will return after the pandemic passes.

“We are concerned about the perception of safety of public transit,” Gold said. “I think we are safe and we’re doing what we can do.”

The agency would be included in any funding granted through the request from the CTA, but it could be some time. Any disbursement of funds is tied to the state’s budget process.

Meanwhile the transit association has launched a statewide digital campaign to demonstrate the consequences of cutting public transportation.

“The worldwide health pandemic has put California’s public transit agencies in crisis, with many agencies at risk of permanently eliminating or reducing bus, train and other transit services,‘’ said Joshua Shaw, executive director of the California Transit Association. “Without state or federal support, local public transit agencies may be forced to make cuts that threaten economic recovery and disproportionately hurt disadvantaged communities.‘’

Many essential workers rely on public transit to get to work. Without it, underserved communities could see unemployment rates spike, officials said.

“Data show that those riding public transit today are essential workers and overwhelmingly women, low-income and people of color who lack access to other mobility options,” said Jeffrey Tumlin, director of transportation for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. “Viable public transit is essential to protecting strong and healthy communities and to avoid the loss of thousands of local jobs.”

In addition to losing revenue from passenger fares, many transit agencies are hurting due to significant drops in state and local sales tax revenues, which they rely on as a funding source.

Without additional funding, it could take years for public transit to recover, according to the association.

Advocates also underlined public transit’s importance to meeting California’s environmental goals, warning of worse health outcomes and more traffic congestion if public transit is cut.

Staff writer Jason Ruiz contributed to this report.

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