Public transit hopes to win back riders after crushing year

WASHINGTON — Taking the Los Angeles Metro for his first trip in months, Brad Hudson felt a moment of normalcy when the train rolled into the South Pasadena, California, station, harkening back to his daily commute into LA before the coronavirus pandemic.

Then Hudson boarded the train, and reality set in.

Not everyone wore masks. Metro staffing levels appeared much lighter, with more trash on the trains.

“I don’t feel at risk for COVID, because I’m vaccinated and I mask,” said Hudson, a child psychologist. But he felt security was worse now — he said a passenger shouted at him for no apparent reason and, on a subsequent ride, a man entered a train car with a large knife strapped to his leg.

As President Joe Biden urges more federal spending for public transportation, transit agencies decimated by COVID-19 are struggling with a new uncertainty: how to win passengers back.

It’s made more urgent as the United States confronts the climate change crisis. Biden has pledged to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions at least in half by the end of the decade, an aggressive target that will require car-loving Americans to transform the way they travel, ditching gas-guzzling cars for electric vehicles or embracing mass transit.

“We have a huge opportunity here to provide fast, safe, reliable, clean transportation in this country, and transit is part of the infrastructure,” Biden said at an event Friday to promote rail and public transportation.

With fewer transportation alternatives, lower-income people are more reliant on public transportation for commuting and their daily lives. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti promises free transit fares for them and for students.

The city’s Metro ridership has fallen to about half its peak of 1.2 million, and Garcetti said getting more people on board would accelerate economic recovery “for our most vulnerable” and reduce the city’s traffic and emissions.

In Washington D.C., where many federal employees now telework due to COVID-19 restrictions, transit officials are mulling lowering fares to draw back riders. New York City has deployed several hundred additional police officers in recent months after a spate of subway attacks that included several stabbings and one person pushed onto the tracks. The Chicago area is looking at rejiggering train schedules to accommodate more passengers traveling throughout the day, rather than during rush-hour peaks, part of a pandemic shift from traditional 9-to-5 work days.

Houston is pledging improvements to 17 of its higher-frequency bus routes, with the motto, “A better walk, a better stop, and a better ride,” featuring improved sidewalks, brightly lit sheltered stops with digital arrival information, and faster trip times.

Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan would provide $85 billion over eight years to update and replace subway cars and repair aging tracks and stations, in effect doubling the federal investment each year. It is the biggest increase in money for public transit in generations.

Of that amount, $25 billion would be devoted to expanding bus routes and rail lines to coax more people out of automobiles, a ten-fold one-time boost over current funding levels for new capital projects.

An additional $25 billion would be devoted to converting gasoline- and diesel-powered mass transit buses to zero-emission electric vehicles.

“It’s a major upgrade,” said Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation, who describes the amount of proposed investment in particular for electric buses as “phenomenal.”

“It’s a huge dent in the backlog, so you’ll be able to see almost immediately in places like New York, more reliable service and fewer breakdowns because of the upgrades to existing systems,” he said.

“In other cities, people will get more frequent bus service. And then years down the road, passengers will see benefits from a couple dozen expanded subway and rapid transit bus lines and new light rail systems, from San Jose, California, to Las Vegas and Charleston, South Carolina.”

The American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave public transit a dismal D-minus grade for its crumbling network, citing 1 in 5 transit vehicles in “poor” condition” and a repair backlog of over $100 billion.

Still, congressional Republicans are balking at the price tag, as well as Biden’s plan to increase corporate taxes to pay for it. The Republican National Committee has argued that just 7% of the money in Biden’s $2.3 trillion plan covers infrastructure as they define it, leaving public transit out of the mix. A Senate GOP counteroffer proposes $568 billion for infrastructure, resulting in cuts to public transit funding by several billion dollars, according to an Eno analysis.

“Biden’s plan is not about infrastructure — it is a plan to levy a job-destroying $2 trillion tax hike while forcing through a far-left, Green New Deal-style agenda,” the RNC wrote on its blog.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says while commuting patterns may be shifting, now is the time to boost public transportation, not downsize it.

“Today, Americans who rely on public transportation to get to work spend twice as long commuting as those who drive. And it’s not as reliable as it should be,” Buttigieg told The Associated Press. “A lot of this is because of the age of our transit infrastructure — across the country there are systems in urgent need of upgrade and modernization. Every American should have access to good options for affordable, fast, safe and reliable public transit — particularly those for whom transit is the only viable option.”

A year ago, transit ridership nationwide drained to almost nothing as tens of millions of Americans hunkered at home due to the raging virus, shunning travel in trains and buses. To stay afloat, transit agencies cut payroll and slashed services.

Three rounds totaling nearly $70 billion in federal COVID-19 emergency assistance, including $30.5 billion that Biden signed into law in March, pulled transit agencies from the brink of financial collapse. That federal aid is now expected to cover operating deficits from declining passenger revenue and costly COVID-19 cleaning and safety protocols through at least 2022.

Still, even as vaccinations become more widespread, it’s uncertain how many riders will come back.

Work-from-home arrangements initially seen as temporary appear to be a more durable trend. Transportation alternatives such as Uber and Lyft ride-share programs — and bike shares and scooters, not to mention driverless cars — threaten to eat away at transit ridership. Some city-dwellers, weary of staying in crammed quarters, have left for wide open spaces with less access to transit.

To date, about 50% of transit riders nationwide have returned compared to pre-pandemic times, according to the American Public Transportation Association. The biggest losses — about 65.6 % — are in commuter rail systems serving white-collar suburbanites traveling to downtown workplaces.

Transportation officials say a key to increasing ridership will be employers reopening offices. Even so, it could take years to get riders 100% back, if ever, putting lower-income workers at a greater disadvantage if service levels drop off.

“It’s a huge challenge,” acknowledges Paul Skoutelas, CEO of the transportation association, who points to once-bustling downtowns that turned overnight into ghost towns due to COVID-19. “Transit agencies will have to pivot to what this new future might be. Essential workers continue to be transported. But we need to get the larger workforce back on public transit, not only for our own survival but also to revitalize cities.”

From coast to coast, the changed ridership is striking.

In the Chicago area, transit ridership was down 71% in March compared with the same time in 2020, according to the Regional Transportation Authority. Pre-pandemic the system saw nearly 2 million riders weekdays on Chicago Transit Authority trains and buses, Metra commuter rail and suburban Pace buses.

Those who continue to rely on public transportation are mostly Black, Latino and low-income workers. For that reason, the CTA, which runs 24 hours, didn’t cut routes or service even as ridership plunged to 200,000 at the lowest.

“We recognized that we’re carrying primarily essential workers who relied on and needed to use public transit to carry out their functions on a daily basis,” said CTA President Dorval Carter.

Although empty train cars are common in some parts of the city, Chicago’s Green Line trains connecting the south and west sides to downtown remain busy, says 34-year-old Ryan Patrick Thomas. Some days it’s standing room only.

He commutes daily from the predominantly Black Austin neighborhood to work downtown at a company that operates senior living centers. Thomas, who is Black, says trains that used to have mixed crowds are now mostly Black, noting the virus has disproportionately hit people of color.

“These trains seem to be just as full of people in more vulnerable demographics,” he said.

New York’s subway system lost billions in revenue and more than 90% of its riders at the height of the pandemic, not to mention about 150 employees who died of COVID-19. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has spent hundreds of millions on disinfecting train cars and nearly 500 stations, even taking the unprecedented move of shutting the system down overnight; it remains closed between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.

Subway ridership remains down close to 70%, though it continues to rise gradually. There’s a slower recovery on the Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road lines that serve the suburbs, where many white-collar workers have the option of working from home.

More than $14 billion in federal aid has put the agency on sound fiscal footing until mid-2024, MTA Chairman Patrick Foye said. How quickly riders return will dictate what happens after that. Current predictions have roughly 85% of riders coming back by the end of 2024.

“As offices open in Manhattan and the rest of the city, we’re confident we’re going to see increased ridership,” Foye said. But, he added: “There could be a robust recovery that could still leave agencies like the MTA with deficits.”

After recent highly publicized cases of subway assaults, New York City police sent in additional officers to help patrol stations, and the MTA has requested more. Still, the NYPD says data shows overall subway crime is down significantly compared to the same time last year.

But MTA officials point to a recent survey in which nearly 90% of lapsed subway riders said crime and harassment were important factors in determining whether they return to the system.

“No one is saying crime is rampant and out of control in the subways,” said Sarah Feinberg, interim head of New York City Transit, which runs subways and buses. “What we’re saying is we have a huge number of customers who are worried about it. … We’ve got to get this into a better place in the coming months. If we can’t get people back in the next couple of months, it’s going to be harder to get them back in the future.”

New Jersey Transit, the nation’s largest statewide system, lost more than 90% of its riders at the height of the pandemic. Rail ridership currently is about 25% to 30% of pre-pandemic levels, and bus ridership is about 50%. Fares that normally fund more than 40% of operating costs currently account for about 12% amid projections ridership won’t fully return until 2026.

The Biden plan would invest $621 billion to modernize transportation infrastructure, putting an emphasis on public transit and rail needs over roads by a ratio of 1.43 to 1, according to Urban Institute researcher Yonah Freemark. That signals a big shift in how the nation moves goods and people.

Projects already in the pipeline likely stand to gain the most, including a planned extension of the Bay Area Rapid Transit rail system to San Jose and Santa Clara, California; bus rapid transit lines in St. Paul, Minnesota, Charleston, South Carolina, and Las Vegas; and New York City’s long-awaited Second Avenue subway line.

There’s also Atlanta’s proposed $5 billion upgrade of its transit system, including light rail for its Beltline; and a $7.1 billion transit expansion in Austin, Texas, approved by voters in November, featuring new rail and rapid bus routes connecting downtown to suburbs, an all-electric bus fleet, on-demand shuttles and park-and-ride facilities.

Biden’s proposal would also offer federal aid to cities developing projects that relieve congestion, boost access to underserved populations and help the environment, even if construction is several years away.

“If you’re a city that has not developed a plan and identified local revenues to support transit improvements, you may actually lose out,” Freemark said.

Biden’s ambitious plan is a bet on reluctant riders returning such as Chicago resident Patrick Monaghan, who avoided public transportation for more than a year. The 55-year-old has multiple sclerosis and waited until he got fully vaccinated before making his first trip, to a Cubs game.

Boarding the familiar trains on the city’s North Side gave him anxiety, even though there weren’t many people on board. Afterward, though, he realized how he missed it.

“Sitting in my living room being away from people has made me nervous being around them. At the same time, I was excited to do something,” said Monaghan, who now sees brighter days ahead riding transit to go places.

“It’s like having anxiety before a birthday party — like you know you will have fun, but don’t know how it’s going to go.”

Weber reported from Los Angeles, Tareen from Chicago and Porter from New York. Associated Press writers Juan Lozano in Houston and Ashraf Khalil in Washington contributed to this report.