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What Is The Future Of Public Transit In The U.S.?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

During this last week of 2020, we're exploring what a post-pandemic future might look like - the future of education, restaurants and public transit. The pandemic has thrown the nation's bus and subway systems into a death spiral. Ridership is down, so there is less fare revenue. We're talking millions of dollars in operating losses.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

So agencies are making service cuts, which is making the lives of people like Judith Howell a lot harder.

JUDITH HOWELL: It is still dark. It's just turning light when I get off work.

CHANG: You see, she works an overnight shift as a security officer in Washington, D.C., and it is vital that she get to work on time - by 11 p.m. sharp.

HOWELL: Whether you're a commercial cleaner, a home care health worker or a restaurant worker, you don't get a lot of leeway for being late.

CHANG: But during the pandemic, D.C. Metro cut service on her bus route, and Howell had to rely on her neighbors to drive her to work or on Uber because unlike a lot of white-collar workers who get to Zoom into the workplace from home, Howell has to actually show up.

HOWELL: The majority of people in this country are working-class and middle-class people, and that's who the system should be designed for.

CHANG: And even though across these public transit systems ridership is down, among essential workers like Howell, ridership is similar to what it was before the pandemic. And many of these riders tend to be lower-income and people of color, like Mayra, who lives in the Boston area.

MAYRA: (Through interpreter) My community doesn't have the luxury to work from home that are in the front lines, working jobs that depend on our physical labor.

CHANG: We're not going to use Mayra's last name because of her immigration status. Every day, she rides buses and trains to get to three different restaurant jobs in three different cities.

MAYRA: (Through interpreter) And I don't really have another option because I don't have a car. I can't drive.

CHANG: And then during the pandemic, Mayra saw bus routes getting cut. She saw buses on the remaining routes making fewer stops.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AUTOMATED VOICE #1: Stop requested.

AUTOMATED VOICE #2: If possible, exit rear door.

CHANG: And that meant at least an extra hour for her daily work commute. So she's even thinking she might have to quit her third job. Mayra and other riders have been worried that some of the temporary service cuts they saw during the pandemic might become permanent if these agencies don't get more relief money.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: It is full steam ahead for the MTA's doomsday budget...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The pandemic has left the already cash-strapped agency in crisis...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Metro is proposing sweeping cuts to service...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: SEPTA is making more cuts as it loses money...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: BART just announced it's asking for another half a billion dollars...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: The MTA says they must reduce services where there are fewer riders...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: The MTA says it could be forced to reduce service on subways and buses by up to 40%.

CHANG: This past fall, the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York proposed to cut service by up to 40% on subways and buses and lay off 10,000 transit workers. Pat Foye is the chairman and CEO.

PAT FOYE: It is so bad, Ailsa, that it is worse than during the Great Depression in terms of the downward effect on ridership and our revenues. From September 1929 - the month before the stock market crashed - to 1933, subway ridership was down 13%. In the worst days of the pandemic in New York in March and April, subway ridership was down 95%. And even now, although it's greatly recovered, it's down 70%. That matters because we get half of our revenue from our customers in tolls and fares, so you can imagine the financial damage it's caused.

CHANG: Now, Congress has just passed another coronavirus relief package, and that legislation does include $14 billion for transit agencies, which does stave off some of the most drastic transit cuts in places like D.C., Boston and New York.

FOYE: That will fill our deficit in 2021 and put us in a position - in 2021, at least - we will not have to make those types of service cuts or lay off colleagues.

CHANG: OK. So what kinds of service cuts may still be in place even after this stimulus money gets to the MTA?

FOYE: We will need an additional $8 billion of federal aid for '22, '23 and '24. Having said that, in 2021, we will be running reduced service on Metro North, and we'll be looking at service on subways and buses as well. We're just right-sizing the service for the levels of ridership that we have.

CHANG: So, Foye says, the $4 billion the MTA will get in this latest coronavirus relief package will help in the short term. But it doesn't solve the long-term transit crisis. As I listened to Foye talk, it felt like I had heard this story before, way before the pandemic - this story about chronically underfunded public transit systems. And it made me wonder, why is the story always like this? So I got on a Zoom call with Yonah Freemark. He's a senior research associate at the Urban Institute. And when we got on, I glanced at the wall behind his head, and he had all these transit maps.

YONAH FREEMARK: And then this map up here is a imagined map of a transit system for the "Game Of Thrones" world.

CHANG: (Laughter) They go into battle on subway cars.

FREEMARK: That's right.

CHANG: The question I wanted Freemark to answer was, why are transit agencies always struggling?

FREEMARK: One of the problems we have is that we're very focused on maintaining the status quo. Everything about the investments we make in our transportation system are ensuring that people can continue to get around in the same ways that they did, you know, 10 years ago. And so for the most part, the transit options we've been giving people have been very similar year in, year out. And many of the support programs that have been announced during the COVID crisis have been about maintaining that status quo.

CHANG: Like, they're just Band-Aids.

FREEMARK: Yes, absolutely. They are complete Band-Aids for a transit system that is inadequate for most people around the country. We speak a lot about transit in places like New York or Washington because those are the places where transit is relatively high-quality. But the reality is that there are low-income Americans all over the country who are in desperate need of an alternative to driving around but who simply don't have access to good transit options.

CHANG: Do you feel like, during this moment - this pandemic - lawmakers in Washington are paying more attention to what public transit needs?

FREEMARK: The Congress in 2020 demonstrated that there is bipartisan interest in supporting public transit. What we really saw this year was an endorsement of the idea that public transit is an essential service. And I hope that it sets the standard for thinking about a sustainable, equitable recovery after the pandemic.

CHANG: Do you feel that there is, indeed, wider public buy-in when it comes to rescuing public transit right now? - because I could imagine that there is also a lot of people out there thinking, wait; I'm stuck at home right now. I'm not going to be going anywhere. Don't put money into public transit. Put money into unemployment, into food stamps.

FREEMARK: Very surprisingly, this year, we saw a major endorsement of increased funding for transit in communities where you might not expect it - places like San Antonio, Texas; Austin, Texas; San Francisco region; city of Seattle. In all those places, voters actually passed new referenda that will increase their own taxes to pay for transit. This was really surprising because, as you said, we're in the middle of an economic recession. People have lost their jobs. And yet they said, for us, public transit is an important enough priority that we're willing to increase our own taxes to pay for improvements.

CHANG: And Freemark says if more and more voters keep voicing support like this for public transit, he hopes eventually, lawmakers actually will allocate more than just a Band-Aid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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