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Can Biden save public transit from the pandemic?

Ridership—and revenue—are cratering. Will there be anything left once we’re vaccinated? The Biden administration and new Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will have to act fast to give federal help so states and cities can turn things around.

Can Biden save public transit from the pandemic?
[Photo: Harry Gillen, Neal Chopra/Unsplash; Alvaro Matzumura/Pexels; rawpixel; Metropolitan Transportation Authority]
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Even before the pandemic, mass transit in the U.S. had been struggling: 2018 marked the fourth straight year of ridership decline across the country, and though 2019 offered some hope with two full quarters of ridership growth, the pandemic crushed that progress. For public transit systems, fewer riders means less revenue, compounding longstanding funding issues. But with the Biden administration now in place, transit experts see hope for their industry’s future—one that is inextricably tied to climate goals and social equity—as long as the administration can get them the funding and federal policies they need.

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Just because fewer people are riding subways and buses doesn’t mean they don’t want, or need, transit as an option. In New York City, subway ridership is down about 70% compared to the year before, but the drop for bus ridership hovers closer to 55%. “A remarkably large percentage of bus riders are essential workers, and everyone else on the bus has no other way to get around,” says Danny Pearlstein of transit advocacy group Riders Alliance.


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Those bus riders also tend to be lower-income and are more likely to be minorities and immigrants—a trend that is true across the country, which is why functioning mass transit is crucial to racial and social equity. Better transit is also necessary to reach our climate goals; replacing private car rides with bus or train trips (or biking, or walking) would reduce the largest share of the average person’s carbon footprint. If one driver per American household switched to public transportation for their daily commute (for trips that are 10 miles each way), they’d save more than 4,500 pounds of carbon dioxide per year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

These benefits are even more necessary as we start to think about our COVID-19 recovery. New Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has already alluded to the ways he’ll shift the DOT’s focus away from just highways and cars to “micro” mobility and more social equity in transit—in an interview with Axios, he noted how there are transit deserts, “disproportionately in Black and brown neighborhoods, where people can’t get access to economic opportunity”—which has given transit experts hope for the kind of policy they’ll see from the administration. But to truly set mass transit up for success, and ensure a more environmentally friendly, equitable future in cities across the country, the Biden administration needs to show early on that public transit is a priority with more funding, fixes to transportation spending policies, and approval for congestion pricing in New York City, which could be a model for the entire country.

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More federal funding for public transit

The first thing mass transit needs from the Biden administration is simple: money. The American Public Transportation Association has requested an additional $39.3 billion in COVID-19 relief as a top priority. “The emergency relief is so critical, so fundamental to keeping the agencies stabilized, addressing their budget issues, and really being able to continue to operate essential services that workers are counting on,” says the association’s president and CEO, Paul P. Skoutelas.

That amount would help keep transit agencies afloat through 2023—a necessary timeline since transit ridership won’t come back quickly or immediately, Pearlstein notes, especially as we’re still grappling with the pandemic. “Even with the vaccine, this will still be the largest ever fiscal crisis for transit for years to come,” he says.

Though President Biden’s proposed American Rescue Plan included $20 billion for the transit industry, the first draft of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, released February 8, gives $30 billion to transit agencies. The American Rescue Plan clarified only that the money would go to the “hardest hit transit agencies;” it’s not yet clear how those funds will be divided across the country.

Beyond COVID-19-specific relief, though, the Biden administration should forge a new, ongoing partnership between the federal government and transit agencies, Pearlstein says. “Historically, the federal government has provided some support for capital improvements in transit,” he says, “but what we need now is more of what we’ve seen for the past year, which is a federal role in operating support to keep buses and trains running for essential workers, for people who are transit-dependent, and as we build back tourism.”

Approval for New York City congestion pricing

Another immediate step the Biden administration could take to help mass transit is to approve New York City congestion pricing. New York became the first state to approve a congestion pricing law, which would require drivers to pay a surcharge for traveling through heavily trafficked parts of the city, in April 2019, but under President Trump, federal approval for that plan was on hold. (The plan requires federal approval because some of the roads designated for congestion pricing have used federal aid for construction.) Plus, the plan needs either an environmental-impact statement or assessment, and the federal government has to decide which. But Secretary Buttigieg could review, and approve, the plan immediately.

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Congestion pricing is a two-for-one win: “You clear the streets of unnecessary vehicle trips, and for the vehicle trips that are still there, drivers are helping to pay for the fact that everyone else is taking transit,” Pearlstein says. “Congestion pricing can’t happen soon enough.” Once the federal government approves New York’s plan, the state can undertake that environmental review and implement the tolls, and other traffic-clogged cities can look to New York as a model for their own congestion pricing plans.

Fix the surface transportation bill

Ever since Congress created the Interstate Highway System, legislators have passed bills to authorize spending and investments for surface transportation, covering both highways and public transit. The latest surface transportation reauthorization was set to expire in 2020 before Congress extended it for one year; now it expires in September 2021. Already lawmakers are working on that new legislation, so while that bill won’t be in place within Biden’s first 100 days, it’s crucial that Cabinet members start thinking about it early on, as it could set the tone for transit funding for the next five years.

The current bill (as has every one since 1982) includes an 80-20 split for funding, meaning highways get 80% of the federal funding, while public transportation gets 20%. “That’s something we have to move beyond,” Pearlstein says. Riders Alliance, along with advocacy group Transportation for America, are asking in the next reauthorization bill for the federal government to fund both public transportation and highways equally, and for the highway spending that does happen to go to maintenance and repair, rather than the creation of new highways.

The American Public Transportation Association has more asks for the next bill too, including priorities to accelerate the electrification of bus fleets, ways to forge partnerships between transit agencies and micro mobility companies, and an “ambitious” investment program, Skoutelas says, so that communities can undertake big projects such as rail extensions. “Those are the areas that we think are really key that need to be addressed, and they need to be done through the lens of social equity and through the issues of climate change,” he adds.

Overall, transit experts are hopeful that the Biden administration will deliver at least some of the help it needs. And, it seems, all the right players are in place for transformational transit policies. While Buttigieg himself may not have direct experience with large public transit systems—South Bend’s transit fleet included just 47 buses—he does have real-world experience as a mayor in knowing what cities need. Plus, there’s never been a higher-profile transportation secretary, Pearlstein notes. “The fact that he views this as a generational infrastructure issue and a racial and a climate justice issue could not be better timing for the moment when transit is on the ropes like never before, but facing the prospect of a really transformative future.”

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And beyond Buttegieg, there are others that offer hope, starting with Joe Biden, a president who has been vocal about his support of rail travel and who himself has ridden more than 2 million miles on Amtrak, according to his own estimate. There’s also Chuck Schumer, now the Senate majority leader, who grew up in Brooklyn riding the bus and subway and has promised to prioritize public transportation, and Polly Trottenberg as deputy secretary for the Department of Transportation, who was New York City’s longest-serving NYC DOT commissioner. “The stars are aligned for the future of transit in a really remarkable way,” Pearlstein says.