Commentary piece from April 3 edition of the St. Louis Business Journal
As Congress finalized the $2 trillion stimulus package and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act was officially signed by President Trump, many Americans saw a ray of hope amid the COVID-19 pandemic. And those in charge of local transit agencies were no exception.
Public transportation providers throughout the St. Louis metro area, and across Missouri, have been working tirelessly to provide as much service as possible during this pandemic, while also focusing on keeping operators and passengers safe. Enhanced safety precautions have been paramount as drivers work to get essential personnel like healthcare workers and first responders to their jobs and ensure everyday citizens can gain access to food, medicine and other necessities. Meanwhile, these agencies are facing massive deficits due to dropping fare box recovery, increased expenses from new cleaning protocols and significant driver absenteeism.
Bi-State Development, which operates MetroBus and MetroLink in St. Louis, is estimating a loss of $88 million from the impact of COVID-19. According to New York-based TransitCenter, if social distancing continues over the next 12 months, transit agencies nationwide will face a shortfall of $26-$28 billion. This is based on a model that assumes fare and park-and-ride revenue drops by 75-100 percent (fare revenue will fall more than ridership does), local sales tax revenue falls by 30-55 percent and local/state support and other agency-generated revenue falls by 20-30 percent.
Given that, the $25 billion included in the CARES Act for public transit will go a long way towards ensuring that transit agencies can survive until this public health crisis subsides. These funds will be help transit operators protect public health and safety while ensuring transportation access to essential jobs, medical treatment, food and other needed services remains available.
The weeks and months ahead will be defined by more change and new challenges. The transit service that is essential now will be even more so when Missourians get back to the business of building safe, sustainable and economically viable communities.
Missouri public transit providers typically provide an annual average of 60.1 million rides, according to the 2019 Economic Impact of Public Transit Services in the State of Missouri. In conjunction with these trips, the study revealed transit riders are spending $600 million on goods and services. This translates into a direct economic impact of $1.28 billion each year in Missouri. The direct spending triggers another $2.4 billion in statewide economic activity, including $1.03 billion in added household earnings for Missourians. Bi-State Development alone had a direct and indirect economic impact on the St. Louis economy that exceeded $2.7 billion, while supporting more than 21,000 jobs.
Public transit clearly goes beyond the ride. It positions the region for growth. It delivers economic return. Transit is essential to local communities, and the CARES Act is delivering a vital lifeline that will have a far-reaching impact now while helping to ensure this economic engine can be revved back up quickly once this this pandemic passes.
Kimberly Cella, executive director of both Citizens for Modern Transit and the Missouri Public Transit Association.