Facing higher costs, lower ridership and rider safety concerns, leaders of San Francisco-area public transit agencies worried about their ability to continue operating at current levels, let alone address rider concerns, without sources of additional funding, they said during a March 3 webinar hosted by the Bay Area Council, a business and civic organization.
Bay Area Rapid Transit will run out of federal emergency funds in 2025, said Alicia Trost, BART chief communications officer. “We need to find new funding so that it’s not on the back of our riders,” Trost said. “If we can’t get funding, we’re going to have to close early. There will probably be no weekend service. We’re gonna have to cut weekday service. We may have to close stations.”
BART is not alone in facing a fiscal cliff. Although weekday ridership on San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency buses and light rail vehicles, at 55% of pre-pandemic norms, is higher than BART’s 40%, “our revenues are tracking at our worst-case scenarios,” said Julie Kirschbaum, SFMTA director of transit. Labor and construction costs are rising “much faster than any of our revenue sources,” she said.
If these transit systems have to cut service or raise fares, the burden will fall harder on people of color. Black workers relied on transit in the San Francisco-Oakland region to get to work at twice the rate of White workers in 2021, according to TransitCenter, a foundation focused on urban public transit. Latino workers relied on transit 50% more than White workers, it reports.
The region’s Metropolitan Planning Commission is looking into long-term funding measures that could go before voters in 2026 or 2028. “Ultimately, what we’re hoping is some sort of local or regional ballot measure that can bring the funds that we need to stabilize transit in the Bay,” Kirschbaum said.
In the near term, transit leaders hope state funding can help BART and the SFMTA. However, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, facing a $22.5 billion state budget deficit, proposed slashing $2.2 billion and delaying an additional $1.3 billion in funding for transportation programs in his 2023-2024 budget proposal.
The funding crisis is “a turning point for Bay Area transit,” Kirschbaum said. Investing in transit could help the region improve transportation equity, reduce air pollution and bolster its economic recovery, she said, but “if we don’t, those goals are not going to be achievable.”
WFH, crime, homeless concerns affecting ridership
For Trost, the answer to the funding shortfall is to increase ridership by getting workers back to their offices. “We need you all to have your employees back downtown,” she said.
Transit ridership in the San Francisco Bay Area remains stubbornly low as nearly a quarter of the employees in the region work from home five days a week, the webinar panelists said.
The council’s ongoing survey of about 200 employers estimated that 45% of employees were going to their workplace just one to three days a week in January. That figure increased only slightly, to 48%, when employers projected behavior six months later. “We have reached a new normal,” said Emily Loper, vice president of public policy, transportation, for the Bay Area Council. “New travel patterns have emerged, and people are not commuting to their jobs downtown as frequently as they used to.”
In the survey, 71% of respondents said their transit-riding employees were “somewhat concerned” or “very concerned” about safety issues other than COVID-19. BART’s Trost called safety the “top, top concern.” The transit agency will redeploy police officers from vehicle patrols to riding trains on March 20, she said.
BART also is deploying unarmed staff members focused on safety, Trost said: 10 ambassadors, 20 crisis intervention specialists and 19 fare inspectors. These additions are a response “to folks that say an armed presence actually makes them feel nervous,” she said.
BART is also responding to riders’ concerns about people who are homeless in the transit system. “Being near the unhoused makes people feel uncomfortable. That is what we have been told, and we’re hearing it,” Trost said. The agency hired a new senior manager of social service partnerships and added attendants to elevators and restrooms. The elevator attendants address “elevator cleanliness, safety, security, availability and accessibility issues,” BART said in a press release on a pilot program in 2018.