Transit agencies call for additional $33B in federal aid

An NJ Transit bus driver wears a mask. | Getty Images

An NJ Transit bus driver wears a mask. | Arturo Holmes/Getty Images

Facing decimated ridership and uncertain state budgets, the leaders of transit agencies from five states on Tuesday called upon the federal government to include about $33 billion in funding for public transportation in the next Covid-19 aid package.

New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority CEO Pat Foye and New Jersey Transit CEO Kevin Corbett joined San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit General Manager Bob Powers, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority General Manager Leslie Richards and Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority CEO Jeffrey Parker on a conference call to make the case that transportation plays a key role in fighting the pandemic and in the nation’s eventual economic recovery.

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“The federal government must recognize the ongoing emergency and the vital role of transit infrastructures as economic drivers, but also as agencies that transport first responders and essential workers during the pandemic,” Foye said during the virtual event. “This is a national disaster that requires a continued national response. The ongoing impacts of the pandemic are outpacing the historic levels of support previously included in the CARES Act.”

The MTA, the nation’s largest public transit agency, is asking for $3.9 billion from the government to operate to the end of 2020. Foye estimated needing about $10.4 billion to cover projected deficits in both 2020 and 2021. In March, the MTA was allocated $3.8 billion from the initial federal emergency relief package, just shy of the $4 billion it had originally sought.

Foye said the MTA can’t rely on drawing from capital funds, and that its cost of borrowing “is significantly higher than it was a few months ago.”

Ridership on the New York City subways is down 92 percent and the Long Island Rail Road’s ridership declined 97 percent, Foye said.

For NJ Transit, the nation’s third-largest transit agency, the ask is less certain. Corbett said the exact calculation of the agency’s needs is “not quite there yet” but that it will be “roughly proportional” to the MTA’s and NJ Transit’s initial requests.

NJ Transit has seen a 95 percent drop in ridership since the beginning of the pandemic. It is slated to receive $1.436 billion from the initial relief package, more than its initial $1.25 billion request.

“We cannot afford to go back to the era when transit systems were on the verge of collapse,” Corbett said.

On the West Coast, BART is poised to receive $251.6 million of the $1.3 billion allotted to Bay Area transit operators from the feds, but Powers said that sum only covers a portion of the agency’s two-year, $600 million deficit.

The agency heads also called on the federal leaders to distribute aid based on need stemming from the health crisis, acknowledging that New York and New Jersey were hit the hardest.

“Surely it should be the case that ridership ought to be taken into account, the effect of the pandemic on each of our agencies which has been significant,” Foye said. “Using the traditional funding formulas doesn’t work.”

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