Public Transit, Battered by Pandemic, Triumphs at the Ballot Box

Among the transit initiatives that passed at the ballot box this fall was a measure in Fairfax County, Va., to provide a reliable funding stream for the Washington, D.C., area Metro system. Photo by Ben Schumin/Creative Commons.

By Jenni Bergal

Far fewer people are riding buses and trains during the COVID-19 pandemic, but in this month’s election voters still approved more than a dozen proposals to increase spending on public transit.

From California to Virginia, voters supported sales or property tax hikes and bond issues to pay for maintenance, improvements or expansion of mass transit systems that have been hit hard in the last nine months.

“Transit ridership is down in most cities. At the same time, it’s still moving millions of people a day, and a lot of those people are essential workforce—nurses, grocery store workers, people working in warehouses,” said Alex Engel, spokesperson for the National Association of City Transportation Officials. “There’s a lot of recognition that our transit systems need to be there now for them and to make sure we’re maintaining them for the future as well.”

Though President-elect Joe Biden strongly supports public transit, Senate Republicans may favor other funding priorities. This month’s elections show that more local governments will be stepping up to generate their own funding, given the uncertainty about federal help, said Michael Walk, a program manager at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a university-based transportation research agency.

“It’s a recognition of need,” he said. “Cities and regions are saying, ‘What can we do on our own so that we’re relying less on federal funds?’”

Ridership has plummeted across the nation since March, as health and safety concerns and the transition to telework have driven away customers who normally would ride trains and buses.

American Public Transit Association data shows ridership dropped 76% nationally in the second quarter of 2020, compared with the same period last year. In New York City and Chicago, rail line ridership was down 87% during that period; in the Washington, D.C., area, it declined 93%.

Even so, voters approved measures that would raise their taxes to aid mass transit.

In the Bay Area, voters threw a lifeline to Caltrain, a financially troubled regional commuter line that runs through three Silicon Valley counties. Nearly 70% voted for Measure RR, which enacts a 1/8-cent sales tax that will go to the train line.

“Remarkably, Caltrain has never had a dedicated source of revenue in its 30 years of existence. About 70% of revenue is generated by ticket sales,” said San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine (D), Caltrain’s board chair. “During the time of COVID, with our ridership down over 90%, we’ve lost a majority of our revenue.”

Caltrain also has burned through its federal CARES Act funding, which totaled nearly $65 million, and is facing at least $18.5 million in deficits for fiscal 2021, which ends June 30, 2021, Pine said. The extra sales tax revenue the rail line will get from Measure RR will generate an estimated $108 million a year.

In the short term, that will allow it to continue operating during the pandemic and keep the 50% fare discount for lower-income residents it recently created, he said.

In the longer term, he added, the revenue will help with operating expenses for the new electrified service it hopes to roll out by the end of 2022. Caltrain plans to expand the capacity of the rail corridor and eventually triple ridership from 65,000 pre-pandemic to 180,000 passengers a day by 2040.

“It’s remarkable we got 70% approval, considering most voters aren’t using the train,” Pine said. “They appreciate that it keeps cars off the highway and reduces carbon emission.”

In Austin, Texas, voters overwhelmingly backed Proposition A, an 8.75 cents per $100 property tax hike that will help fund a $7.1 billion plan to build and operate a new rail system, a downtown transit tunnel, expanded bus service and new park-and-rides that would connect people to rapid bus and light rail. The dedicated revenue will be funneled to an independent organization that will oversee, finance and execute the project.

“We knew there was an appetite for a transit system. And it was a way to keep our economy vibrant and robust,” said Gina Fiandaca, an assistant city manager in Austin. “It’s a big ask to increase your property tax. We were encouraged by the vote of confidence. It’s a testament to the optimism of the people of Austin.”

There weren’t a lot of other revenue sources available to the city, Fiandaca said. “It was important to us that it would be a sustainable source, in perpetuity.”

The measure also includes $300 million for “anti-displacement measures” to help neighborhood residents and businesses, such as providing rent assistance and building housing near the transit system.

Currently, Austin has a bus system and a rail line connecting neighborhoods to downtown. In September, total ridership was down more than 50% compared with the same month in 2019.

Austin officials are hoping to get about 45% of the total $7.1 billion needed for the project from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which they have been working with to make sure they meet criteria for matching funds. But it isn’t a done deal.

“There’s always uncertainty and there’s risk,” Fiandaca said, “but we really do believe that with our early outreach to FTA, we’re well positioned.”

More buses in Missoula

In Missoula, Mont., voters passed a property tax increase that will expand bus service and frequency while keeping it free. Homeowners will pay about $81 a year more in taxes on a $300,000 home under the measure, which will bring in an additional $3 million a year for Mountain Line, the local bus system.

Corey Aldridge, Mountain Line’s general manager, said that means the system can run buses additional hours on Saturdays and add Sunday service for the first time.

“In our community, we’ve seen a real shift in the way people view public transportation. They see it as a solution,” Aldridge said. “It reduces air pollution. It allows people with no cars or one car to get around to where they need to be. It’s something that in the future is going to be vitally important.”

Mountain Line has been somewhat insulated from the pandemic’s economic impact, Aldridge noted, because it relies on property taxes rather than fares or sales taxes to operate.

During the pandemic, average daily ridership—about 6,000 riders—has dropped between 50% and 70%, according to Aldridge.

While most of the successful transit measures directly taxed residents, in Fairfax County, Va., voters approved a $160 million bond issue to fund the county’s share of annual payments to WMATA, the Washington, D.C., area’s transit system. It will be used for service, capital projects and other improvements.

One of the few public transit setbacks occurred in Gwinnett County, Ga., where voters narrowly defeated a 1% sales tax hike to fund a $12 billion transit expansion over 30 years. The measure would have extended the MARTA rail system and bus rapid transit in suburban Atlanta.

Whether transit issues passed or failed had a lot to do with where the voting took place, said David Ditch, a transportation policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

“The ones that passed this year were at the city or county level, in places that were much more tax-friendly constituencies,” Ditch said. “They are fairly blue, sometimes dark blue areas, and they’re not as adverse to taxes as the states as a whole.”

Local governments would do better investing in beefed-up bus service, Ditch said, which is more flexible and doesn’t have fixed costs like rail.

“You’ve spent all this money on a commuter rail line or a monorail. There’s a temptation to keep subsidizing it indefinitely,” he said. “This is supposed to be a public good, a public service. If you’re just keeping it going because you don’t want to look bad politically, you’re lighting taxpayer dollars on fire for the sake of a small number of riders. That’s not a good use of our resources.”

Nor is it a good idea to invest in fixed rail until it’s clear what will happen with commuting trends after the pandemic, Ditch added.

“Until we know what the post-COVID normal is, committing to big infrastructure projects seems foolhardy,” he said. “And that includes big highway expansion projects as well.”

A look ahead

While Biden is a strong supporter of Amtrak and public transportation, it’s unclear how that support will translate to local communities.

Under Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan, the federal government would help provide every American city of 100,000 or more residents with “high-quality, zero-emissions public transportation options.” Those projects would range from improving existing transit and bus lines to installing infrastructure for pedestrians and bicyclists.

But Congress holds the power of the purse and it’s hard to predict how much congressional support there will be for bigger investments, given the pandemic’s current effect on ridership, said Walk of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

Ultimately, Walk said, he doesn’t think people will shy away from public transit once the pandemic has ended. “The ridership reductions you see today are not a bellwether for what ridership will always be like in the future.”