Empty BART cars have been a familiar sight to riders during the coronavirus pandemic. The transit agency estimates it is losing $40 million each month and says it desperately needs federal relief money to avoid much deeper budget cuts. (Photo by Sharon Hahn Darlin/Flickr)

BART joined a nationwide group of public transit agencies Tuesday to call on the federal government to allocate between $32 billion and $36 billion in relief funding for public transit in its next COVID-19 pandemic relief funding package.

BART General Manager Bob Powers and executives from 12 transit agencies like the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York and Seattle’s Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority cautioned that the pandemic could easily derail the country’s public transit agencies over the next 18 months.

Executives with each transit agency detailed how ridership has plummeted upwards of 90 percent during the pandemic, causing eight- and nine-figure monthly shortfalls in fare gate revenue.

“We need help. COVID-19 has created a fiscal crisis that threatens public transit in the Bay Area.”

Bob Powers, BART general manager

For BART, the agency’s current 89 percent loss in ridership amounts to a gap of $40 million in monthly revenue. Powers estimated that the pandemic could cut revenue by roughly $975 million over the next three years.

“We need help,” Powers said on a virtual news conference. “COVID-19 has created a fiscal crisis that threatens public transit in the Bay Area.”

The executives all expressed their gratitude for the roughly $25 billion in relief funding for public transit that was included in the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act passed in March.

However, they warned, a dearth of additional federal support and continued ridership losses due to the pandemic’s persistence will result in further fiscal belt-tightening that could jeopardize public transit jobs and service.

Multiple executives advocated for the passage of the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, which the House of Representatives passed in May and the Senate has yet to consider.

“Without action by the Senate, we don’t have a path forward that will devastate our system and drag down our regional economic recovery,” New York MTA Chairman and CEO Patrick Foye said.

BART already made nearly $200 million in cuts to its fiscal year 2021 budget, which avoids layoffs and furloughs but postpones planned increases in labor spending to maintain balance.

Agency officials have warned that BART’s solvency is heavily dependent on CARES Act funding and future budgets will also be propped up by federal funding support, assuming passengers don’t flock back to public transit amid the pandemic.

Powers also noted that maintaining the agency’s service is vital to the Bay Area economy.

Since the region’s pandemic-related shelter-in-place order began in mid-March, 59 percent of BART riders have not had access to a car, 81 percent have been people of color and 35 percent have a household income of less than $50,000, according to BART.

“Keeping public transportation operating for people who can’t afford a car, who don’t drive, is a social justice and equity issue,” Powers said. “Just as the digital divide leads to disadvantage, the mobility divide has the same effect on perpetuating economic inequality.”