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Checking Up On The Health Of Public Transportation Systems

Commuters wear mandatory face coverings in an effort to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus after stepping off a bus at the Sarbanes Transit Center in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Commuters wear mandatory face coverings in an effort to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus after stepping off a bus at the Sarbanes Transit Center in Silver Spring, Maryland.

It’s time to talk about the health of public transportation in America.

From Boston, to San Francisco to Washington D.C., public transportation is facing a shortage of funds and an uncertain future. Many of these systems had problems before the pandemic that have only worsened since the advent of COVID-19.

Find our last conversation about whether transportation should be free here.

That’s an issue for the frontline workers currently keeping America running. Reduced operation schedules, station outages and other pandemic-related changes to public transit can make getting where they need to go difficult.

What measures are being taken by local governments and the federal government to keep mass transit afloat? Why have these budget deficits persisted?



JENN WHITE: This is 1A. I’m Jenn White in Washington. For many Americans, nine months of the pandemic has meant nine months without a commute on mass transit. Ridership has plummeted nationwide, forcing transit agencies to face funding shortages and an uncertain future. For many, many essential workers, life without public transportation is simply not an option.

CLIP: This is Salman calling from Houston, Texas. I’m a physician who’s responding to your voice prompt about mass transit in the USA. So, responding to the pandemic both in Boston and now in Houston, I use public transit. In Boston, I didn’t own a vehicle. Here in Houston, I live about 35 miles from the hospital and public transit has really made it possible for me to provide high-quality patient care and stay safe after long night shifts. I think that public transit will continue to help health care workers in the foreseeable future and do so in a climate-friendly way and in a way that helps us working nights stay safe on the roads after those long night shifts, taking care of folks.

JENN WHITE: That’s one of many messages we received about public transportation in COVID-19. Today, we’re checking in on three transit areas that are anticipating massive service cuts if they don’t get the federal aid they need… soon. We’ll get to San Francisco and our home, Washington, D.C., later in the hour. But first, let’s start in New York. Joining us now from New York City is Pat Foye. He’s the chairman and CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Agency. That’s the corporation responsible for public transportation in the state of New York. Pat, welcome to the program.

PAT FOYE: Thank you, Jenn, for having me.

JENN WHITE: Also joining us from San Francisco is Laura Bliss. She’s a reporter covering transportation and technology for CityLab. Laura, welcome back.

LAURA BLISS: Thanks for having me.

JENN WHITE: Well, I want to kick things off with a voicemail from one of our listeners in New York City. Here’s what Andrew had to say.

CLIP: I’m a professional who relies on the New York City transit system for all of my travel. Reduced service would mean losing time each day for a longer commute or spending large amounts of money on car services. With MTA threatening dire service cuts, I fear that the working and middle class will bear the brunt of the system’s financial crisis.

JENN WHITE: Andrew, thanks for that message. You know, Pat, last month you proposed a worst-case scenario plan to cut subway and bus service by 40 percent. You also proposed cutting two lines of the busiest commuter rail lines in the country by 50 percent. That’s all if the MTA does not receive substantial federal aid. Paint us a picture of the MTA’s financial situation right now.

PAT FOYE: Sure, Jenn. The MTA is facing a once-in-a-hundred-year fiscal tsunami, unlike any financial challenge it’s ever faced. That includes 9/11, Superstorm Sandy, various storms and actually orders of magnitude worse than the Great Depression. And I’ll just give you one fact. Subway ridership from September nineteen 1929, the month before the crash, to 1933, which was the bottom of subway ridership during the Great Depression… subway ridership went down during that period, 13 years. I recognize the Great Depression went on for a decade. But at the worst days of the pandemic, subway ridership, New York City subways were down 95 percent. It’s recovered substantially, but even today, it’s down 70 percent. We get, the MTA gets half our revenue from our customers and fares and tolls. And the decline in ridership that I just described has been different numbers, but felt on subways, buses, Metro North, Long Island Railroad (two commuter rails we run) and also on bridges and tunnels which have come back. Bridges and tunnels are down about 10, 12 percent depending on the day. That’s important because it’s subsidized… subsidizes mass transit. The deficit we face over a period of years without federal aid is nearly $16 billion. The service cuts, Jenn, that we describe that I described at our board meeting last month, nobody at the MTA wants to cut service at all. No one wants to lay off any of our colleagues who have performed heroically throughout this entire pandemic. But our hand may be forced, if in the case of the MTA, we don’t get $12 billion of federal aid.

JENN WHITE: So you have the impact of the pandemic. But how was the agency faring before February 2020?

PAT FOYE: Good question. So in January of 2020, we expected for the year first an $80 million operating surplus. We were beginning to execute the largest capital plan in the MTA’s history: $51.5 billion. Subway on-time performance had been up for month after month after month. Ridership was increasing across the board, and in some agencies, record… record ridership. So we had every reason to believe that it was going to be a year where you’d have a modest surplus and where ridership would continue to increase. And we would begin to transform the entire system with a $51.5 billion capital plan, about 40 percent larger than any five-year capital plan of the MTA’s past.

JENN WHITE: To Andrew’s question, who will bear the brunt of the cuts you’re considering right now?

PAT FOYE: Well, the answer is, Andrew is right. And I’ll talk first about operations and then we’ll talk about capital projects. Look, during the pandemic and today, most of our riders are first responders and essential employees who don’t own cars. They don’t have the luxury of driving to their jobs in most cases, and they don’t have the option of working remotely or getting on a Zoom call, as we are this morning. They are folks that include transit workers, obviously public employees, men and women working in grocery stores and pharmacies, utility workers, transit workers, firefighters, EMTs, et cetera. They tend to be of lower income and in communities of color. And it’s interesting, for instance, on the seven train, which runs from Flushing to Hudson Yards, ridership at the Junction Boulevard station, which is kind of on the Elmhurst-Corona border in Queens, close to City Field where the Mets play, ridership there is 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels at that station. That is true in a lot of the outer boroughs, outer-borough subway stations, those not in Manhattan, even though ridership as a whole has only come back 30 percent. From the capital point of view, capital projects, capacity expansions, improving the system, re-signaling ADA projects. I’ll pick out two projects which are also, from a social equity point of view, going to be very troublesome. We are proposing in the new capital plan to extend the Second Avenue subway to 125th Street in Harlem. East Harlem is one of the most underserved regions of Manhattan in the entire city by mass transit. Many significant portions of East Harlem residents have to drive to work. That project is on pause as a result of the pandemic. And another project on the West side is bringing Metro North, which travels right now from Grand Central to Westchester, Putnam and into Connecticut to Penn Station, for the first time would include the building of four new stations in the East Bronx to allow residents of those neighborhoods to access employment and education opportunities in Manhattan, but also north of Westchester and beyond. That project is on hold as well. So from an operating point of view, low-income customers, members of communities of color, are going to suffer both in terms of cutting back operation service, but also the pause that continues on our capital plan.

JENN WHITE: Laura, so we have a picture of what’s happening in New York with mass transit. How does that reflect what we’re seeing across the country right now?

LAURA BLISS: Yeah, similar forecasts in other major cities across the country, which really rely on their transit systems as, I mean, it’s almost a cliché, but it’s true, as a spine of their recoveries… excuse me, economies. So I’m here in San Francisco where the executive director and officials laid out a similarly grim plan to cut back service and about 22 percent of the transit operating workforce just last week in order to close a $600 million budget gap over the next two years. And I just want to kind of underscore what Mr. Foye is saying. I mean, here, too, there’s still a large… I mean, a relatively large percentage of, you know, the transit riding population who are still boarding buses and trains every day. It’s close to 200,000 people who are who are still using transit every day. So these are not systems that have been, you know, abandoned. In Washington, D.C., you know, our nation’s capital and where, you know, Congress is deliberating right on a possible package that would provide some additional aid to agencies. Officials there are discussing 40 percent cuts to the bus network and really severe reductions to metro rail service, including completely eliminating all weekend service on trains and shutting down the system on weekdays after 9:00 p.m. So these are cuts that would really change the system from something of a, you know, economic lifeblood to really an anemic last resort.

JENN WHITE: Pat, public hearings have begun on proposed increases to fares and tolls in New York. So far, these increases have garnered a lot of criticism from the public. How will you minimize the impact on New Yorkers, particularly essential workers and those in low-income areas who depend on the MTA most?

PAT FOYE: Good question, Jenn. Here’s a… first, we’ve made no decision with respect to increasing fares on subways and buses and the commuter rails. A number of options have been presented. One option on both subways, buses and the commuter rail is to maintain the base fare and to make changes to other fare options, which are less used some believe, by low-income customers and residents of communities of color. So that option make… for instance, the base fare on the subway right now is $2.75 per ride. We… there are options on both the subways, buses and commuter rail to maintain the base fare. Obviously, the base fare on the commuter rails is higher. Nobody… we are acutely aware of the rising unemployment in the New York area, the increase in underemployment and the fact that many of our customers and employees and neighbors are suffering and the board will take that into account before any action is undertaken. We have an additional public hearing…

JENN WHITE: About 15 seconds here.

PAT FOYE: Another one on Wednesday. And that debate is well underway.

JENN WHITE: Well we’ll check back in with you on the other side of that debate. That’s Pat Foye. He’s the chairman and CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Agency in New York. Pat, thanks for your time.

PAT FOYE: Thank you, Jenn.

JENN WHITE: And Laura Bliss is staying with us. She’s a transportation and technology reporter for CityLab. Coming up, could a $908 billion coronavirus stimulus plan help save mass transit? We’ll ask Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia. I’m Jenn White. This is 1A, from WAMU and NPR.


JENN WHITE: I’m Jenn White. This is 1A. We’re talking about the future of mass transit with Laura Bliss, a transportation and technology reporter for CityLab. We also want to hear from you. Whether you rely on the mass transit system for your employment or for your commute, you can comment on our Facebook page. Tweet us [at] 1A or send us an email at 1A [at] WAMU [dot] org. I want to bring in another guest now. Joining us from Alexandria, Virginia is Mark Warner. He’s a Democratic senator from Virginia. Senator Warner, welcome back to the program.

SENATOR WARNER: Jenn, thanks for having me on.

JENN WHITE: So we just heard from Pat Foye, the CEO and chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York. He’s asking Congress for $12 billion in federal relief by the end of 2021 or else he’ll have to reduce transit service by 40 percent. Now, you’re part of this bipartisan group of lawmakers proposing a $15 billion investment for public transit agencies as part of a $908 billion relief package. What are you and other members of Congress doing to ensure this bill passes?

SENATOR WARNER: Well, we are trying to broaden our bipartisan group. I think it would be complete… I call it stupidity on steroids, if Congress were to leave for the holidays and not provide at least an emergency relief package. Remember, people will lose their unemployment the day after Christmas. People will be kicked out of their rental apartments beginning of January. Many small businesses need support. And we’re talking this morning about Metro here in the greater Washington area. We are still down about two thirds on ridership and two thirds in terms of revenue. And if we don’t get additional federal assistance to Metro in D.C. area, you’re going to see 1,400 people lose their jobs. You’ll see all Metro service discontinued on weekends. And after 9:00 in evening. That would disrupt our economy. It would disrupt the federal government and obviously disrupt people’s lifestyles. So this is critical that it gets done. It is not a perfect package, I believe I’m the first to acknowledge. We’ve got $15 billion in this package for transit systems, public transit systems. We’ve got an additional $8 billion for private bus company routes that are more kind of in rural America. We’ve got about $17 billion for airlines, $4 billion for airports. So this four-month package is a bridge to the Biden administration. But we’ve got to get it done. And I think we’ve seen now president-elect Biden endorse this package, the Democratic leadership. We’re waiting to see if Senator McConnell, the Republican leader, will help us bring it to the floor.

JENN WHITE: Well, we know Senate Majority Leader McConnell has not endorsed this bill. He’s still pushing forward his plan. It’s a smaller plan, it doesn’t include any funding for mass transit. How do you convince him this is necessary and to move ahead?

SENATOR WARNER: Well, I think the biggest convincing point is that his plan has been rejected twice in the Senate. Not even all the Republicans voted for it. We have, you know, double digit numbers of Republicans, both publicly about 10 and another 10 plus privately. They need to put pressure on. And I think just people around the country need… let us have a vote on this bipartisan plan. If we’re not successful, we’ll go to another plan. But I think this $908 billion plan hits most of the high marks. It will make sure we don’t have this radical disruption of our public transit systems. And it needs to get a vote. I think it would get many more than 60 votes if it was brought to the floor.

JENN WHITE: So if the bill passes, again and includes $15 billion for transit… we know MTA by itself is asking for $12 billion in federal relief by the end of 2021. So how will this money be divvied up among the transit agencies that are struggling across the nation?

SENATOR WARNER: Well, there is a traditional formula. No transit agency, just as no state or local government or that… for that matter, small restaurant who’s looking for assistance is going to be made 100 percent whole. I know, for example, in the first bill, the CARES bill, the Washington Metro system got about $870 [million] dollars. That was coming out of a $32 billion base. So we’re talking about now, for a four-month period, about half that amount to the Washington Metro system. I don’t know what it will be for the New York system, but there was also the relief package, $160 billion for state and local governments. And again, I’m not familiar fully on how the New York system, regional system is funded. But here in the greater D.C. area, Maryland, Virginia, the local governments, the District all chip in and… for the payments of the system. So consequently, state assistance could be used by the governors and the mayor, respectively, to also buttress those… the direct dollars that would go to Metro.

JENN WHITE: Well, Diane from Arlington wrote in: “The Metro and buses are my main mode of transportation, I have not ridden either since the beginning of March due to COVID. Our neighborhood rush hour bus began running again a couple of months ago. Ridership has been extremely sparse. I fear it will disappear completely. Costs must be cut somehow.” Senator Warner, the D.C. Metro, is facing the grimmest financial forecast in its 50-year history. Some of the proposed cuts include ending weekend train service, completely reducing bus service to 45 percent of pre-pandemic operations. How do you plan to support your constituents who rely on the Metro to commute to and from work each day, especially since it’s been so difficult to get the second round of support passed through Congress?

SENATOR WARNER: Well, I think it’s been abysmal that the Senate has not taken up any of the House-passed legislation to get a relief package. Clearly, the leadership of both parties have been going on this political blame game. And that’s why a group of us kind of in the center, bipartisan, came up with this $908 billion, four-month emergency relief plan. Does it meet every need? No. Does it bring us to a hopefully more willing-to-deal Biden administration? Yes. Will it provide needed relief for Washington Metro and other public transit systems? Absolutely. Will it provide all of the backfill that has been caused by transit systems around the country, and particularly when it’s hard to predict when people will feel comfortable looking back on the bus, getting back on the Metro? That still remains to be seen. But failure to act will mean these systems that we’ve literally invested billions of dollars and will, frankly, as you already pointed out, we would end service on the weekends. We would end service after 9:00 at night. That would have a dramatic disruption to the whole regional economy.

JENN WHITE: Well, someone from Tampa, Florida, shared this: “I don’t use public transportation simply because it doesn’t go where I work. It would take three buses to get as close as possible, which would still leave a six-mile walk. The financial viability of public transit shouldn’t be a factor in an efficient, useful system benefiting all people.” And Gabrielle asks: “Public transit seems like a public service. Why do we ask it to be profitable?” Senator, I wonder if you are rethinking the way we approach public transit in this country and whether it’s time to take an altogether new approach.

SENATOR WARNER: Public transit is essential, and I believe it needs to expand, particularly if we’re going to move towards a more carbon-free environment. The challenge, quite honestly, from the raw politics in terms of federal support is that many of my Republican colleagues live in states that don’t have major metropolitan areas, that don’t have subways, that have minimal bus services. It was a… in this $908 billion negotiation, we were looking for almost double the amount of money for public transit that that we received. But that’s the nature of a compromise. No side gets 100 percent. Will there be an attempt under a Biden administration to take a fresh look at transit? I would hope so. I think it’s critical to both a greener economy and one that will make ourselves less dependent upon automobiles. But it’s going to require… as some of your callers and listeners have indicated, there’s virtually no transit system in America that, on a cash-flow basis, operates in the block.

JENN WHITE: Senator, you’ve called the $908 billion relief plan a quote “interim package” until president-elect Biden takes office. What happens after January, especially since the balance of power in the Senate is still in question? How are you and other members of Congress planning to push for more economic relief for transit agencies?

SENATOR WARNER: Well, I think this action that started with eight of us getting together, talking about how we can make the Senate functioning again, that’s evolved into a group more than double that size that has come up with a $908 billion framework. I think that bodes well for the next coming year, that there are people willing in both parties. And I hope in the case of a president like Biden, we’re going to have a president that’s actually engaged with the Congress. As we know, President Trump has engagement with Congress that is episodic at best. Oftentimes simply he makes partisan attacks rather than trying to work in a bipartisan fashion. Joe Biden had more than 35 years in the U.S. Senate. He’s a creature of the Senate. I think he knows how to work with senators in both parties. And I hope this kind of rational, bipartisan thinking that seems to be breaking out here in December will continue into January. And that will bode well not only for transit, but it will bode well for all of the areas that we need to step up on: unemployment, small business relief, broadband. Clearly, if you are caught at home, you’ve got to have access to broadband internet, in our $908 billion plan. We’ve got $10 billion put aside for broadband, a substantial investment. But it will be great to have an administration that actually doesn’t look at every problem through the lens of Democrat versus Republican, but actually looks at the lens of what the country needs.

JENN WHITE: That’s Mark Warner. He’s a Democratic senator from Virginia. Senator Warner, we appreciate your time.

SENATOR WARNER: Jenn, thanks so much. Bye bye.

JENN WHITE: And still with us is Laura Bliss, a transportation and technology reporter for CityLab. Laura, what’s your reaction to what we just heard from Senator Warner?

LAURA BLISS: I mean, so much of what he’s saying is absolutely true. You know, the just $15 billion will not, you know, nearly go far enough to cover the extent of the backfill that agencies say is required. That number that they’re asking for was $32 billion … is $32 billion. That number was included in the earlier Heroes Act passed by the House earlier this year. And as you already pointed out, Jenn, I mean, you know, New York City, MTA alone is asking for $12 billion. So this, you know, $15 billion, it kind of goes to show, you know, wouldn’t leave much left over if we were talking about fully, you know, restoring MTA service. I think it’s also important to point out, you know, Senator Warner was pointing to preexisting formulas for funding transit agencies. And that’s absolutely true. He’s referring to how Congress normally funds transit. But one thing that I’ve heard from a number of transit leaders and advocates is that, you know, using those normal kind of historic formulas to distribute this kind of relief aid is really tricky in a time when, you know, you have such reduced revenue coming into these very, very large, you know, big city agencies. Like the MTA, for example, you know as well as actually Washington, D.C. Metro, you know, both really rely on passenger fares to support their budgets in a normal year. And so relief aid is just not going to go nearly as far for them as it is for smaller or even mid-sized city agencies. So, for example, just going back to New York one more time, you know, the CARES Act funding, which was $25 billion back in March, only lasted four months in New York City. So that just kind of gives you a sense of just how fast that money goes for large systems in general.

JENN WHITE: I’m Jenn White. You’re listening to 1A. So when you talk to public transit advocates, Laura, what dollar amount do they give you? What do they say to you is really needed?

LAURA BLISS: $32 billion is the number cited by advocates at APTA, which is the American Public Transportation Association, and other groups, as well as transit agency leaders themselves.

JENN WHITE: Well, I want to get into the health and safety aspect of taking mass transit during the pandemic. We got this message from one of you who shared how the pandemic has uprooted your commute. Let’s listen.

CLIP: This is Morgan from the San Jose-Bay Area in California. Prior to the pandemic, I was an almost exclusive user of public transports. I have a disability that means you can’t drive. The transport here has worked out really well for us and gets me everywhere I need to go. During the pandemic, we’ve been keeping away from the public transport due to the difficulty with social distancing. We’re a little concerned and we’re hopeful that these resources will still be there when the pandemic is over.

JENN WHITE: Laura, a new report from NYU found that the risk of COVID-19 transmission on public transit is actually extremely low. Tell us more about this data.

LAURA BLISS: Yeah, thank you for asking about that question. That’s right, this NYU study is just from last week and it found exactly what you’re saying and kind of builds on previous research that predates COVID and also has come out since in other cities around the world, finding very little transmission. And that partly relates to, you know, high kind of frequency of air circulation on-board buses and trains, as well as just kind of the average duration of time that a passenger is likely to spend. I mean, you know, it doesn’t necessarily close the psychological stress, right, of getting onto a vehicle that you’re sharing with other people. I mean, you know, Uber and Lyft, right, have also had pretty difficult years because people are I mean, A, simply traveling less and B, potentially feeling a bit wary about sharing space with even, you know, one person, a driver. But I think it’s absolutely true. And this kind of evidence, this kind of research will really, really, you know, be a useful thing for transit agencies to remind people, particularly as a vaccine is distributed and people do start returning to work in higher numbers.

JENN WHITE: We’ve been talking a lot about the impact of the pandemic on people who use public transportation. But what about the impact on the folks who run these systems: the drivers, the operators, the fare takers? How are their jobs being impacted?

LAURA BLISS: Absolutely. I mean, you know, when you… when you think about a, let’s say, you know, 40 percent reduction in service like New York City MTA is contemplating or, you know, sustaining the 60 percent cuts to the San Francisco bus network, which is where I am for the next two years. You can kind of think about a proportionate, you know, cut in workforce because you need people to run these buses and you need people to service the subways and obviously operate them and manage the tracks and so forth. And so, I mean, here in San Francisco, we’re talking about a 22 percent reduction in workforce. In New York City, I can’t remember the number of top my head, but, you know, it’s in the thousands. And I think that, you know, Senator Warner and Pat Foye earlier on the call, you know, the CEO of MTA, both pointed out that these layoffs would be coming for people who have been, you know, considered essential workers for the last eight months, who have been, you know, continuing to operate these services in support of the people who are still riding, who are in many cases themselves, you know, front line workers working at grocery stores, pharmacies, hospitals. So this would be a pretty devastating impact on people who have already put themselves, you know, at tremendous risk for many months now.

JENN WHITE: We’re talking about the future of mass transit with Laura Bliss, the transportation and technology reporter for CityLab. We’re also talking to you. A member of the 1A text club writes: “For several months, the High Point North Carolina Transit System has been free for riders. Masks are mandatory on the buses and inside the terminal building. When there’s a reported infection, the system shuts down for sanitizing and returns with a reduced schedule. In my area, it’s important for employees and seniors to get dependable transportation for shopping, jobs and medical appointments.” We’ll hear more from our guests and from you in a moment. This is 1A.


JENN WHITE: Now Let’s get back to our conversation about the pandemic’s impact on mass transit with Laura Bliss. She’s a transportation and technology reporter for CityLab. And there’s still time to share your questions and comments about the future of mass transit in your area. You can comment on our Facebook page. Tweet us [at] 1A or send us an email at 1A [at] WAMU [dot] org. And we heard from one of you about the state of mass transit where you live. Here’s what Evan shared using our app 1A Vox Pop.

CLIP: In Denver, we have the Regional Transportation District, or RTD, and even before the pandemic, RTD was not doing well. They were having a lot of trouble retaining drivers and they actually had one of the highest fares in the country. And so now that the pandemic has come, all of those things have gotten worse and more, the first round of layoffs is scheduled to start soon, and the transit system here needs a lot of improvement. You know, Denver is a sprawling city and we need more transit and we need it fast. And it’s really discouraging to see it being underfunded and under-prioritized by our legislatures.

JENN WHITE: Thanks for that message, Evan. Laura, I want to be clear that public transit was on a pretty worrisome trajectory even before the pandemic. Talk about what we’ve seen over the last five years or so.

LAURA BLISS: Yes. Thank you, Jenn. That’s right. I mean, and I think cities like Denver are really good examples of that recent trajectory. Post-2015, public transit ridership nationally has been declining after several years of increasing. And that’s for a number of reasons. I mean, one, I think as listeners in Washington, D.C. and New York particularly know, you know, there’s aging systems with pretty significant maintenance issues that were, you know, breaking down and just being unreliable and kind of pushing riders away for that reason. But then also, you know, these big systems, Denver’s is actually pretty, pretty recent light rail systems that opened in recent years and just didn’t really, you know, go far enough or, you know, we’re not well enough connected to, you know, compete really with not only, you know, private vehicles, but also emerging modes like Uber and Lyft, which, you know, came out and really kind of accelerated in popularity and on that same timeframe, too. So in addition to, you know, a recovering economy post Great Recession, transit agencies have been struggling with declining ridership and the financial challenges that come with that.

JENN WHITE: Well, we got this comment from a member of the 1A text club. They say: “I live in Lansing, Michigan. We have the bus and that’s it. I find it extremely disappointing that Michigan hasn’t invested in a subway system for mass transit between the capital city and Detroit. It holds us back economically. The roads are terrible and everyone I know owns a car or has to depend on the bus. The closest stop is two miles from my house and I live on a rundown road that is unforgiving in the winter months. Mass transit would be a game changer in our state.” You know, we’ve talked a lot about public transportation in major cities, but what do we know about how transit systems in smaller cities are doing? There are plenty of systems out there that never had weekend service to begin with.

LAURA BLISS: Yeah, it’s so true, and I was just looking at my Twitter feed and getting a tweet from somebody saying that these transit cuts will disproportionately affect people with disabilities in communities of any size because they also use public transportation services wherever they are. So it’s absolutely true. You know, there are people who use public transit as their primary, you know, mode of transportation all over the country. They may not be, you know, in nearly as large numbers as in San Francisco or Los Angeles, but they are there. They are working. They are also, you know, elderly people who, you know, are getting to the grocery store or getting to health care. They are, you know, parents. So these are people, you know, real individuals who need this service.

JENN WHITE: I think it’s important to place mass transit within the larger transportation ecosystem, within our infrastructure ecosystem, because we also need, you know, smooth roads and sidewalks for people to get to a bus stop. If someone has a disability and there isn’t a sidewalk to bring them to that stop, that’s an issue. So how does this conversation fit within the larger conversation of our crumbling infrastructure?

LAURA BLISS: That’s such a good question. I mean, you know, again, to just hearken back to the crumbling infrastructure of some of these systems themselves, like, you know, Pat Foye was pointing to earlier in our conversation, they were really just turning a corner at the New York City MTA on, you know, reviving their capital budget and making some critical investments that were long overdue. So you’re absolutely right. On top of that, there’s all the kind of connective tissue, you know, that supports transit service, whether it’s, you know, sidewalks, whether it’s the roads themselves that, you know, people are traveling on when they’re on the bus. So, you know, there’s a plethora of issues. I think it’s worth pointing out that, you know, President Trump campaigned on the idea of being a builder president and investing, you know, $1.1 trillion into our transportation, waterways, broadband infrastructure. And that really did not come to pass. And, you know, here we are.

JENN WHITE: Alan emailed: “I live in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. And I don’t rely on public transportation and never have in my daily life. Personally, I can’t see justifying providing federal funding to such systems when these issues are region specific and do not directly impact much of the country. Senator Warner forgets that the Northern Virginia and D.C. metropolitan area needs do not necessarily reflect the needs of the rest of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the country.” And Alan, there, referring to our earlier conversation with Senator Warner. But Laura, what do you make of Alan’s point that it’s not justifiable to provide federal support to these transit systems that are more, you know, located in more densely populated areas?

LAURA BLISS: Yeah, I mean, it’s a point that reflects a, you know, debate at the heart of whether public transit should be funded and should be funded at higher levels in this country. It goes back decades and decades and decades, back to the 1960s or even earlier, which was when the federal government first started giving federal dollars to these systems. And the rationale then, I think, is really largely the same today, which is that, you know, we’re talking about, you know, in some cases in the larger cities, economies that do, you know, support the rest of the country in a pretty substantial way. And then, you know, providing a fairer kind of distribution of funds for people, no matter the mode that they use. I mean, the federal government, you know, subsidizes roads of all kinds, you know, not just the federal highways. And so I think there’s a question of kind of fairness that transit advocates would point to there.

JENN WHITE: Well, let’s get to one last voicemail. Here’s what one of you had to say about the pandemic’s effect on your work commute.

CLIP: Hi, my name’s Jamal, calling from Arlington, Virginia. I actually commute from Arlington to Baltimore for work, both MARC and Amtrak. And I’ve given up my vehicle. I spent about… a little over three and a half years now. I really don’t want to purchase a vehicle, but the way things are looking, I may have to go that route. I am a staunch advocate for public transit and I really do support any funding, as much funding, both federal and local, that can be infused into systems to keep them going. It’s very important that we have fewer cars on the road.

JENN WHITE: Laura, what’s your reaction to what we just heard from Jamal?

LAURA BLISS: I think that what he is contemplating is reflective of what probably a number of people who are contemplating how they might return to the office or how they might return to a greater level of travel than they’re previously experiencing, which is that the systems that they return to, you know, very well may not be the ones that they left back in March. And so that means, you know, you look to other options, whether that’s buying a car or resesarching the top rated car transport company and maybe moving to a different part of the city potentially, or part of your community. And so, you know, from a kind of urban systems, you know, level thinking, the cumulative effect of individuals making these kinds of different choices will have pretty significant effects on congestion, carbon emissions, potentially quality of life. And of course, that kind of sustained, reduced ridership for the systems themselves will spell trouble in the much longer term.

JENN WHITE: Well, part of what seems to be an outstanding question is how we work, how we commute, whether we commute, how that’s going to be changed by the pandemic with so many people figuring out the fact that they can work from home and might be able to avoid a commute long term. How concerned are transit agencies about the fact that people just may not be back on the road?

LAURA BLISS: It’s a great question and, you know, I think some of the projected budget gaps that we were hearing about earlier in the hour do reflect, you know, accounting for reduced ridership for a number of years. You know, Washington, D.C., for example, is not expecting ridership to return to even 30 percent of where it was… excuse me, 34 percent, I think, until June 2022. So you’re absolutely right. I mean, people may change up their commute patterns to work from home more days of the week. And also people are out of jobs. Right. And those jobs may not come bouncing back as quickly as a vaccine may be distributed, whether or not that’s fast. So I think we are gearing up, you know, no matter whether aid comes or at what level for pretty long-term effects of this period.

JENN WHITE: I’m Jenn White. You’re listening to 1A. We’re talking to Laura Bliss, the transportation and technology reporter for CityLab. We got this question in. Well, it’s more of a comment, actually. Joshua tweets: “Unfortunately, there’s a systemic issue here rooted in capitalism. Public transport is looked down upon due to the emphasis on personal gain attributed to vehicle ownership.” When we look long-term, are we seeing a shift in car buying that could be at play here when we think about people’s concern about the environment? What are the implications there?

LAURA BLISS: It’s such an important question and I and just to kind of build off of that that earlier comment, I mean, it’s an interesting one to connect it to these sort of larger systems. And I think there is absolutely a sort of cultural, you know, value that’s placed on the automobile. Right. It is definitely a kind of deep part of the kind of American, you know, idea of freedom that you have your own vehicle and you can move around. At the same time, it’s never been a reality that, you know, every person in this country has access to that kind of transportation. So that’s just one thing I wanted to add. And the second on the question of kind of how public transit systems are changing and what that might mean for the environment. I mean, absolutely. You know, a bus, a train is the most, you know, carbon-friendly mode of transportation you can take short of walking or riding your bike. So, you know, shifting to modes that make heavier use of fossil fuels will result very likely in more carbon emissions.

JENN WHITE: When we think about the post-pandemic economic recovery, what do we know about the connection between public transit systems and the development of residences and businesses? If mass transit is reduced, to what extent does that impact what gets built where?

LAURA BLISS: It’s a really good question, and I think it’s one that we don’t fully know the answer to yet. You know, I think it is not far-fetched to say that a, you know, hollowed-out transit system in the dense urban cores of many of the cities we’re talking about would significantly diminish what is currently one of the major attractions to developers. There was a report from Washington, D.C. that found 45 percent… excuse me, 78 percent of the planned development in Washington, D.C. for the next 15 years… this is from 2015, so till 2030… was within half a mile of a Metro station. So that’s just one indication of how developers and the sort of broader economy looks at the importance of metro access for commuters and for residents in these areas. You know, there’s larger questions right now of whether cities, particularly, you know, dense downtowns, will remain attractive places for people to be long term, you know, with the sort of broader economic changes that may be coming after a vaccine is distributed even. So, I think there’s still a number of factors that have yet to play out that will kind of bear on this question of how metro service changes long-term development plans.

JENN WHITE: “A member of the 1A text club writes: “I work for a private university as a shuttle driver. 10 of our 16 drivers have been laid off. I was terrified in the beginning of contracting the virus and still am. I am fourth in seniority, so I am working. But when there was money for pandemic workers, we didn’t qualify. Feeling a little like we are not valued for our service despite the risk.” Laura, as we move ahead and wait to see whether or not Congress will pass another round of pandemic relief, one that includes transit money, what are you watching for?

LAURA BLISS: Absolutely. I mean, I’m watching for certainly the kind of big dollar figure. Is that $15 billion the kind of best-case-scenario right now, as well as the distribution of the funding. As we were talking about earlier, there was kind of concern from the earlier package that there was kind of not enough priority placed on the big cities that really rely on these systems most deeply. And then also, I think, you know, maybe as a point of closing, even like, you know, there are still people who are riding these systems. There are 200,000 people getting on the bus in D.C. every day, you know, 175,000 in San Francisco, almost two million people writing New York City MTA every single day. And so these cuts will have an immediate effect on the people, many of whom are frontline workers right now, using these services to get to the places they need to be.

JENN WHITE: That’s Laura Bliss. She’s a transportation and technology reporter for CityLab based in San Francisco. Laura, thanks so much for being with us.

LAURA BLISS: Thank you so much, Jenn. Really, really enjoyed it.

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Kathryn Fink
Kathryn Fink is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.