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BART budget officials said they do not expect the agency’s operating revenue to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024 at the earliest, with growth not expected until late in the 2020s.
While BART officials expect the agency’s budget to be balanced when the fiscal year ends June 30, due in large part to federal relief funding, BART’s revenue during the 2020-21 fiscal year is only expected to reach $526 million, a nearly 45 percent tumble from the $953 million the agency brought in during the 2018-19 fiscal year.
That drop in revenue was driven principally by average weekday ridership plummeting to around 10 percent of both pre-pandemic levels and projected ridership figures.
But even with greater access to coronavirus vaccines over the coming months and the Bay Area workforce’s eventual return in some form to office buildings, agency officials don’t expect ridership to return even to 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels until the end of the decade.
BART Financial Planning Director Michael Eiseman told the agency’s Board of Directors on Thursday that BART’s ridership growth in recent years has been inextricably linked to the economic growth of downtown San Francisco.
“Before the pandemic, two-thirds of our trips had an origin or destination at Market Street station,” Eiseman said. “So if those regional travel trends do shift away from downtown, our recovery may depend on our ability to adapt and serve other markets.”
Board Director Rebecca Saltzman argued the agency should be creative in its efforts to bring back riders, potentially offering group train fare packages and discounts for using the system outside of peak ridership hours.
“Before the pandemic, two-thirds of our trips had an origin or destination at Market Street station. So if those regional travel trends do shift away from downtown, our recovery may depend on our ability to adapt and serve other markets.”Michael Eiseman, BART financial planning director
“We’re not going to have all those five-day commuters,” Saltzman said. “But what if we have two or three-day commuters and they’re also going out at night and on the weekends? Can we get those people back?”
BART has taken multiple steps to cut costs since the pandemic began, including a freeze on new hires, some service cuts, the elimination and deferral of capital project allocations and a retirement incentive program, which resulted in 7 percent of BART’s workforce electing to retire early, according to Eiseman.
Eiseman also noted that the agency should avoid further cuts to train service, which is likely to hinder revenue growth in the coming years, even when assuming the system’s extension into downtown San Jose is completed as scheduled around 2030.
Board Director Janice Li called on the agency to consider how its operating revenue and budget will be broken down in the coming months and years, especially if the rebound of ridership is even more sluggish than expected.
“What does it look like in a world where we are only at, say, 25 percent, 30 percent farebox recovery rate and how do we make up the rest of that pie chart,” she said. “Because that changes our advocacy, our grant strategy, how we’re getting state and federal funding in ways that other transit agencies do.
“What does it look like if we are really dependent on federal funding and how does that make it really, perhaps, unpredictable for budgeting?” she said.
Multiple board members agreed with Li’s request.
“I think that really the next six-to-nine months are going to be very telling about what does BART look like going forward,” board president Mark Foley said.