Public Transit Is in Crisis, but Essential to our Recovery

Local and national advocates call on Congress to include emergency aid for transit in a relief package before 2020 ends.

A man boards a bus in Denver, Colorado
Credit: Credit: Lisa Mia Studios

Rumors of another COVID stimulus package are coming to a head as we close out the disastrous year that has been 2020. Congress must include and prioritize America’s public transportation system in its relief package, not only because it has been severely impacted by the pandemic and concurrent economic crisis but because it is foundational to America’s comeback. The political differences blocking this legislation are not insignificant, but at the core is a desire to use federal spending carefully and in a way that immediately helps people who need it, while putting the country on a path towards sustainable growth. Supporting transit, aligns with that desire because is critical for a low-carbon, equitable transportation system that connects people to opportunity.


As recently highlighted by the New York Times, the problem facing public transit is dire. Major transit agencies in cities like New York, Washington D.C., and San Francisco have announced service cuts, layoffs, and crisis-level budget shortfalls. The reason–the pandemic continues to rattle every aspect of our lives, and millions of people are still traveling less for work and other trips. Since most transit agencies in the United States still rely on farebox revenues, this use gap caused an unprecedented budget shortfall for agencies nationwide. And the funding gap is too large to speak about in murky terms; agencies need immediate relief of at least $32 billion for operating expenses through 2021, as well as continued support until ridership levels return. These aren’t insignificant needs, and if Congress chooses to force transit agencies to take them on alone, legislators will condemn this critical public service on which millions of Americans rely to short-term cuts and long-term collapse. Those draconian measures would hurt those already most impacted by the pandemic, slow our recovery, and weaken our economy for years to come.

For the sake of our economy, it is critical that Congress provides this funding for transit’s survival in the coming weeks as part of COVID relief. House Democrats’ updated CARES package included funding at $32 billion, but it is unclear what amount any final compromise might include. But simply put, without it we won’t be able to return to “normal” life if our lawmakers choose to block transit funding. Before the pandemic, Americans took nearly 10 billion trips on transit every year. As an industry, transit is responsible for billions in spending and investment—just like the aviation industry, which Congress has stepped forward to save. But beyond being a major economic force, transit is a public service that will continue to play a vital role in our life during the pandemic, and in our path to economic recovery. If we don’t invest in transit today, the systems we rely on will not be available for us once the economy is ready to rebound.

This fall, through support of the Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Climate Challenge, NRDC joined numerous national and local organizations to call for Congress to allocate $32 billion in emergency funding for transit operations. And through December, "Transit is the Future" forums are being held in New York, Miami, New Orleans, Oakland, Philadelphia, Charlotte, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Denver to talk about the future of public transportation in the United States in 2021 and beyond. We also worked to unite with these partners around a set of Transit Justice Principles to ensure equity, access, sustainability, and affordability.

“The need for a strong regional transportation system will continue long after COVID-19 is gone….Essential workers still need to get to work. Residents still need to be able to access each opportunity that our great region offers. And in Mecklenburg, that means being able to wake up in Matthews, work in Charlotte, get ice cream in Davidson, and travel to the Charlotte Douglas Airport without ever having to get behind the wheel.”

- U.S. Representative Alma Adams (NC-12), Sustain Charlotte forum on December 2, 2020

Local partners like Sustain Charlotte, Transit Forward Philadelphia and the Denver Streets Partnership are highlighting how transit supports their communities, giving actual riders the microphone, and working to ensure Congress’ federal relief package mirrors local priorities.

“I used to be able to take the bus right to the hospital until they stopped that service. I’m disabled and I depend on RTD.”

- Gina Jones, a regular transit user in the Denver Area, Denver Streets Partnership forum on December 2, 2020

Federal funds are the only hope to save public transit and ensure our transportation system can meet our environmental and equity goals. State and local governments are proposing drastic cuts across every department to prepare for the deepening collapse coming collapse in tax revenue. Some agencies have floated the idea of raising fares, but with ridership cratering, especially among higher-income riders, this approach isn’t enough to bridge the budget gap and only will hurt transit riders more. Service cuts are a desperate stopgap to avoid bankruptcy, not a long-term solution. In fact, cuts to service are likely to initiate a vicious circle of decline in ridership and revenue.

Public transit is one of the best investments that Congress can make for America’s recovery today and for a climate resilient future. Transit has quadrupled the benefits of every dollar invested in it. And right now, in December of COVID, as we are planning our nation's recovery and getting people back to work in the safest way possible, transit’s potential return on investment is enormous. Investing now will ensure sustainable mobility is an option when the economy rebounds. Affordable, reliable transit service will get our communities back to work, school and supporting businesses—allowing all of us to emerge from this crisis stronger than before.

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