As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and stay at home orders, public transit ridership is down between 50 to 90 percent in many places.1 This is resulting in steep losses for public transit agencies which are on the verge of bankruptcy, forcing states and municipalities to consider emergency interventions — all the while hoping that Congress will provide more support. The CARES Act included $25 billion for public transit in March, but annual shortfalls could be as much as $38 billion.2 Despite operating at only 10 percent capacity, with skeletal schedules with minimal crews, we cannot afford for public transit to collapse when more than one out of three essential workers relies on it to get to work.3 Congress should first provide an additional $15 billion to help these transit agencies cover their operating costs and continue running when we need them most.4
Many states use common funding sources to support transit: motor fuel taxes, state transportation funds, general funds and automobile-related fees or taxes. Successful public transportation is often predicated on strong partnerships between states and municipalities, counties and transit agencies. One of the most common and successful approaches to coordinating regional interests is to create regional transportation authorities (RTAs), sometimes called regional transportation districts or regional transportation councils. These public organizations can establish a coordinated effort among municipalities, cities and counties within a single region to create transportation solutions. Often established under statutory authority or via legislative approval, RTAs enhance a region’s ability to work with state DOTs and lawmakers. In many states, RTAs are eligible for funding directly from the state, and some are also supported by localities. In some cases, RTAs are granted taxing authority in order to provide funding to meet the public transportation needs of those who work and live in their district. A similar approach is a local-options sales tax. This taxing authority can be used in conjunction with a number of infrastructure projects but often is associated with transportation.5 States must rethink their public transit systems if we are to emerge from this public health crisis stronger and more resilient.
Americans who are lower-income, Black or Latinx, immigrants or under 50 are especially likely to use public transportation on a regular basis.6 In light of this and the service cuts, public regional transit systems should work with advocacy and civic organizations to establish an equitable, clear and transparent process to engage stakeholders and the public in the planning process in response to COVID-19 with racial and economic equity and public health outcomes at the center.7