Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs) have provided a transportation backbone for thousands of essential workers living in the Bay State. But we need to ensure strong public transportation remains after the pandemic is over. Safe, reliable buses are crucial to providing mobility to those currently keeping our state going. It’s also an essential way to build a more equitable Commonwealth, protect our air quality and encourage strong, healthy and vibrant communities.
While the pandemic has presented significant challenges for transit agencies, it has also shone a spotlight on how important public transportation is to 21st century society. It’s clearer than ever that we need sustainable, long-term investment in the RTAs.
Despite years of budget cuts and chronic underinvestment, RTAs have continued to provide essential services to communities throughout the Commonwealth. With recently expanded service hours, innovative pilots, partnerships with educational and business institutions and the adoption of new technologies, such as electric buses, the past two years have demonstrated that RTAs are on their way to providing better service for riders in their regions. But that work is in jeopardy.
The pandemic has impacted all facets of our state’s economy and the RTAs are no different. COVID-19 has resulted in drastically reduced ridership and fare revenue, as well as increased costs due to changes in safety protocols caused by the pandemic. For example, between April and June, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA) experienced over a 75 percent average drop in expected fare revenue. At the very least, these fiscal challenges are expected to continue through next year.
Although the RTAs received a lifeline in March when the U.S. Congress passed the CARES Act, many authorities have already spent or budgeted this additional one-time allocation of federal emergency funding to purchase PPE for employees and riders, maintain stable service and make up for lost fare revenue. CARES Act funding cannot replace state RTA funding if Massachusetts wants to maintain safe, reliable service for essential workers and transit riders now and in the future.
We can not forget about public transit during the COVID-19 crisis. This system is a lifeline for the Commonwealth’s essential workers, who are helping our state get back on its feet. Transportation cuts would take the legs out from under communities engaged in a life-or-death struggle with the virus. The impact of service cuts or fare increases would fall heavily on essential workers, low-income communities and households without access to a private vehicle, imperiling our ability to put food on grocery store shelves and nurses in our hospitals.
When we emerge from the pandemic, we can not afford to fall back on the transportation status quo with air pollution, climate-damaging emissions, gridlock and inequitable access to economic opportunity. Instead, the legislature must support a visionary future by allocating $94 million for the RTAs in the 2021 state budget. This investment will provide Bay Staters with a safer, stronger and more economically viable transit network that functions more equitably, reduces pollution and helps to build more resilient communities for all.
*This blog was authored by MASSPIRG transportation advocate John Stout.