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Transit Breakdown (Literally): BART's Big Budget Trouble, Anemic Ridership and Whether the 'Normal' Commute Will Ever Return

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An emergency exit as BART's 16th Street/Mission station in San Francisco.
An emergency exit on the platform of BART's 16th Street/Mission Station in San Francisco, on Dec. 9, 2021. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

Updated 8:30 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022

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s far as we know, the coronavirus can't get inside the machinery of a train or bus or ferry boat and actually shut them down. But it might as well be able to. By disrupting the world of work and our travel routines, COVID-19 in all its endless variants is proving to be an affliction from which it will take public transportation years and years to recover.

The latest example of the malady — you could call it "long transit COVID" — will be on display Thursday and Friday when BART will give the world a glimpse of what its bleak fiscal future holds. Some details, and related transit developments:

Will ridership (and revenues and budgets) ever return to 'normal'?

The BART board of directors will hear a presentation Thursday showing that due in large part to the continued very slow return of ridership, the district will exhaust federal emergency funding over the next two fiscal years.

Going forward, BART doesn't see ridership numbers recovering to pre-pandemic levels for many years. Under its best-case projection, that won't happen until 2029-30. The "base case" budget assumption — midway between the worst-case and best-case scenarios — doesn't forecast that happening within the next decade, period, even with the addition of new service to downtown San Jose sometime around 2030. In terms of budget forecasts, BART staff says that without some major new revenue sources, the agency will begin running a deficit sometime in the first half of 2024.

Search for transit cash

A large white building seen from a distance with trees and people around the outside.
The California state Capitol building. (David Paul Morris/Getty Images)

Near term, BART and other transit agencies are looking for more bailouts like the repeated cash infusions they've received from the federal government over the past two years. California, for instance, has a big general fund surplus, and BART and other operators hope the Newsom administration and state Legislature can be persuaded to provide additional resources.

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In the longer term, a handful of Bay Area agencies, including BART and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, have started making noise about a 2024 ballot measure that would include some form of tax to sustain regional transit long into the future. But Bay Area voters seem hostile to the idea. Recent polling shows more than 60% of voters think "taxes are high enough" and would "vote against any tax increase." At the same time, public transportation ranked last among 11 issues likely voters were asked about, with only 22% ranking it a "very high" priority. In fact, a former incarnation of this idea, a "mega-measure" known as FASTER Bay Area, would have raised $100 billion or more over the next couple of decades, but was scrubbed from the 2020 ballot after failing to attract widespread support.

BART ridership is anemic

The BART passenger wears a facemask and is the only passenger visible within the train.
A BART passenger rides in an empty train car on April 8, 2020, in San Francisco. At the start of the pandemic, BART announced that it would slash daily service as ridership dramatically dropped due to the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In January, overall BART ridership was down 76% from its pre-pandemic baseline. And the recent month-to-month trend is even more depressing, with January ridership down 18% from December, and December ridership down 4% from November.

Part of the initial drop was probably due to December's continually wet weather. BART is also attributing the sharp January decline to the omicron surge. If you're looking for a sliver of good news, BART ridership is looking like it's bouncing back from its recent nadir.

But all transit ridership is anemic

A largely empty wide, hilly San Francisco street with cable car tracks.
Few pedestrians walk along Powell Street during commute hours in San Francisco on March 16, 2020, at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Companies continuing to delay a return to the  office — really returning to the office — is the long-term issue suppressing ridership and one that doesn't seem likely to change in the foreseeable future. In the Bay Area Council's January employer survey, more than two-thirds of respondents said they expected their workers will be on site three days per week or fewer "once the pandemic is behind us."

An earlier council analysis said that could mean a lasting cut of 1.1 million daily commute trips region-wide.

Muni: 'Expect extended waits and likely crowding'

People wear masks as they wait in a bus shelter as a red and gray bus pulls up.
People wear masks as they wait in a shelter for a San Francisco MUNI bus on April 6, 2020. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The Bay Area's busiest transit system began experiencing staff shortages early in the omicron surge, and the problem has intensified in the last couple of weeks amid Lunar New Year celebrations. In its daily rider alerts, the agency has recently named as many as 30 lines (of 50 or so that are currently running) that would experience "extended waits and likely crowding."

The staffing shortages are due to "regular old sick calls," according to agency spokesperson Erica Kato, who said the agency is attempting to fill schedule gaps by offering overtime to operators. And just how many sick calls is Muni getting, and how many bus and train runs are being missed? On Monday of last week, it reported 355 sick calls, with 268 "open" runs — scheduled runs for which no operator was available. Last Tuesday it was 259 sick calls and 220 open runs.

A new and improved CEQA exemption for transportation projects

A large underground transit construction site
Construction on the BART Silicon Valley Berryessa extension. (Courtesy of Transmetrics)

San Francisco state Sen. Scott Wiener's SB 922 is a follow-up to his SB 288, legislation that succeeded in speeding up transit and bike projects by making most of them exempt from review under the California Environmental Quality Act.

Under SB 288, the exemption ends next Jan. 1; the new bill would make the exemption permanent and expand its scope to new pedestrian projects — think programs like "slow streets" in San Francisco and Oakland, bus-only freeway lanes (under discussion, but still far from reality, on the Bay Bridge) and new carpool lanes on city streets. The bill would also extend the exemption to projects in non-urbanized areas and require a new equity analysis for exempted transit projects slated for areas with a high potential for community displacement.

Caltrain 'governance' struggle drags on

The side of a Caltrain train as it enters a station.
Caltrain cars at San Jose's Diridon Station, Dec. 28, 2016. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

The saga continues.

An ad hoc committee of the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, aka the Caltrain board, is working with a March 3 deadline to produce an agreement that will resolve outstanding governance issues. One sticking point: San Mateo County's recent announcement that it will require a $15.2 million payment as part of settling the governance dispute. That sum, along with $19.6 million from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, would finally settle a debt incurred by San Francisco and Santa Clara counties when San Mateo fronted the cash for buying Caltrain's right-of-way from Southern Pacific more than three decades ago.

Another sticking point: how a more independent Caltrain will share staff with SamTrans, which has managed the railroad since its long-ago acquisition. Meantime, Caltrain's ridership in December was down 82% from pre-pandemic levels, and the agency is looking for $410 million to finish its electrification project.

In court next week

The Amalgamated Transit Union and the Biden administration's Department of Transportation face off in a Sacramento courtroom next Thursday (Feb. 17) over the DOT's plan, announced abruptly in late October, to block release of emergency operating funds to BART, AC Transit and other agencies because of an ongoing dispute over a 2013 California law that limits pension benefits for newly hired union workers.

U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller granted a preliminary injunction to the state in late December that cleared the way for release of emergency funds. At stake now is whether the DOT may block future funding.

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