Coronavirus Crisis Has Blown a Big Hole in BART's Budget. It Won't Be Fixed Soon

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A Richmond train at BART's Warm Springs station on Feb. 12, 2020, a month before ridership plunged because of the coronavirus crisis.  (Dan Brekke/KQED)

BART directors are about to get a close look at the ugly fiscal realities facing the agency due to the coronavirus crisis — including the likelihood of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue shortfalls and a long, slow process of regaining lost ridership.

During the board's Thursday meeting, the transit agency's managers plan to present a stark picture of what the district faces over the next 15 months and beyond: a $173.5 million gap between revenue and operating expenses through the end of the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, and a best-case scenario for the next budget year in which the agency suffers a further $258 million operating deficit.

That yawning budget gap, like those confronting virtually every other transit agency in the region, is due mostly to the abrupt collapse of ridership after Bay Area residents were ordered to begin sheltering at home last month when the coronavirus outbreak took hold. On Monday, BART recorded just 24,909 paid exits from its stations, down 94% from the average non-holiday Monday in February.

That collapse is especially acute for BART, which gets more than half its operating funds from fares. The second-biggest source of revenue, a half-cent sales tax in Alameda, Contra and San Francisco counties, is also expected to take a big hit with much of the region's economy at a standstill.

In an interview Wednesday, BART General Manager Bob Powers ran down a list of steps the agency has already taken to try to trim costs. It has slashed service, put a virtual freeze on overtime and hiring, prohibited staff travel and shifted hundreds of employees from operations to already-budgeted capital projects like refurbishing stations.

"We are trying to do what we can to manage on the cost side," Powers said.

But since the district's fiscal 2020-21 budget must be balanced, it's likely further steps will be needed.

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Powers said the current service cuts — the system now closes at 9 p.m. each night instead of midnight, and on Wednesday, BART reduced train frequency on its five lines from every 15 minutes to every 30 minutes — will probably be extended into the new fiscal year starting July 1.

Beyond the overtime restrictions and other belt-tightening that's already taken place, Powers is presenting the board with what he called "a drop-down menu" of other actions to consider.

BART could put off some capital projects over the next 15 months and delay or eliminate pay raises for non-union employees that are scheduled to take effect in July. It could negotiate with BART labor unions to defer coming wage increases and continue the current hiring freeze while cutting vacant positions.

"Everything is on the table right now," Powers said. "These are uncharted waters for everybody, whether it's a transit agency, a local government or a state government."

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But looking ahead to the day when shelter-at-home orders will be lifted and the region goes back to work, Powers says he hopes to keep BART's service and workforce intact.

"When the restrictions start to be lifted and the medical professionals give us direction on how and when that goes in, I want BART to be ready to help this region recover," he said.

The region's transit operators are depending on the Bay Area's share of a $25 billion federal relief package to get through the pandemic without having to gut service or lay off large numbers of workers.

The region is due to get $1.3 billion from the emergency funds. It's not clear yet exactly how that money, to be disbursed by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, will be divided among agencies.

Powers said the bottom-line financial damage each system has suffered will be one major factor in determining who gets what.

Jeffrey Tumlin, head of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which runs Muni, suggested earlier this week that agencies' importance to underserved communities should also be considered.

"The conversations are going to be interesting, especially conversations about to what degree do we look at equity across who rides transit versus equality across how many dollars are lost for each agency," Tumlin said.

The 21-member commission, made up of elected officials or their appointees from all nine Bay Area counties, is expected to consider the funding question at its next meeting, April 22.