Bay Area transit: Off a financial cliff?

Is local transit about to fall off a financial cliff? The Metropolitan Transportation Commission anticipating the loss of stimulus funding sees a bleak picture for transit unless the overall economy turns around soon, or people will pay more just to keep it healthy.

At the very least, on roads, rails and water, local transit is heading for a reckoning. Billions in federal pandemic relief funds kept Bay Area transit systems operating over the past three years of the pandemic. 

"The Bay Area received $4 billion to keep all of our systems running. That money is going to dry up," said the MTC's Rebecca Long.

For some agencies, only a rapid recovery in local revenues, taxes and rider fares, and then some, can prevent them from going off a financial cliff. That's because, regardless of scenarios, inflation, labor costs, and fuel prices make it impossible to deliver pre-pandemic service levels. 

"It costs more to do less today than it did four years ago. Key regional transit services around the Bay Area would face a hollowing out of service to a degree that we've never before experienced," said MTC economist William Bacon.

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The MTC projects that Bay Area transit operators will face a combined deficit of as high as $3.3 billion over the next five years, forcing less service, maintenance and improvements. 

"Despite only a 15% drop in operating revenues, we would expect to see about a 30% reduction in the level of transit service hours delivered," said Bacon.

Most endangered include BART, SFMTA, Caltrain, and Golden Gate Transit because their revenue sources are dependent on fares, parking revenues, and tolls at a time when remote workers are using far less transit. 

"BART, which under the scenario, would only be able to operate about 22% of its pre-pandemic vehicle hours," said Bacon.

The SF Transit Riders Organization, says more money for transit is beneficial, even for non-riders who would otherwise suffer from more crowded freeways, more local pollution as well as climate change. 

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"It impacts everyone…riders who are most reliant on public transportation, whether they're riders working in grocery stores, hospitals, or riders working in the service industry," said Vinita Goyal, executive director of San Francisco Transit Riders

That could mean passing more transit bonds or taxing businesses that benefit from transit. 

"There's been significant work done around more progressive taxes like personal income tax more gross receipts and things like that," said Goyal.

Those would be a tough sell to legislators or voters.