Transit Ridership, Revenue Take Steep Dive

Photo courtesy Maryland Transit Administration.

When the Mid-Atlantic region gets hit with a blizzard and workers are forced to stay home, Maryland’s transit systems — MARC, MTA, the Washington, D.C.-area’s Metro and others — lose a couple days’ worth of farebox revenue.

But the stay-at-home orders put in place to fight the COVID-19 epidemic have created an unprecedented drop in transit use and sent revenues tumbling.

WMATA reported that its subway and bus ridership on Wednesday were down 95% and 74%, respectively, from the same day in 2019.

According to the Maryland Department of Transportation, transit ridership in the fourth week of March this year compared with the same week a year ago also saw precipitous declines:

  • Core bus service, down 51%
  • Commuter bus, down 91%
  • Metro subway, down 75%
  • Light rail, down 85%
  • MARC, down 94%
  • TOTAL: down 62%

The CARES Act, federal legislation intended to help states survive the economic downturn, includes money for transit systems. But advocates in the General Assembly are increasingly nervous about how the crisis will impact bus and rail service — and the workers who rely on it — over the long term.

“The financial hit that transit agencies are facing is hard to overstate. It is huge,” said Del. Brooke Lierman (D-Baltimore), co-chair of the legislature’s transit caucus, in an interview.

“Transit is what is getting doctors and nurses and health care workers to hospitals. Transit is what is getting grocery store clerks and Amazon workers to their jobs,” she added. “Transit is an essential service and essential services must keep going.”

In a letter to Maryland Transportation Secretary Greg Slater this week, the transit caucus noted that the state will receive more than $620 million from the federal stimulus.

The funding — which is driven by formula — includes $235.7 million for Maryland’s share of its contribution the D.C.-area’s Metro system and $385.5 million for the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA).

Among their questions for Slater:

  • Will the federal dollars “supplant funding already allocated for MTA or will they be provided as a supplement?”
  • “How will they be held within the Transportation Trust Fund and reserved for exclusive use by our transit agencies?”
  • What remaining gap does MDOT foresee to maintain current levels of service?

In a reply to lawmakers, Slater expressed gratitude for the federal funds and said his team “is working through the number formulas and working with all of our local partners to assess and deliver these funds as quickly as possible.”

With transit employees potentially at risk for COVID-19 exposure, Slater said the priority “is on protecting our frontline workers and the public as we connect people every day to essential jobs and essential supplies.”

In addition, he wrote, “MDOT is tracking and understanding the resources needed to make the Transportation Trust Fund whole from financial impacts of this pandemic.”

Lierman said lawmakers look forward to working with Slater but intend to insist “that money that is intended for transit goes to support our transit agencies. This is not money that is meant to widen highways.”

“The worst-case scenario would be for us to forget transit as we edge out of this crisis,” the lawmaker said. “In our oversight role as legislators, we want to be sure that is what the money is being used for.”

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