More Federal Funds Needed for Agencies, Experts Say

Los Angeles
Nearly empty roads around Los Angeles. (vlvart/Getty Images)

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Federal funding has played an important role as transportation groups and transit agencies navigate COVID-19 pandemic recovery, but more funds will likely be needed, according to experts.

Grace Crunican, former general manager of Bay Area Rapid Transit, said agencies could benefit from another injection of funding after the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was signed by President Donald Trump on March 27.

Crunican retired from BART, which serves the San Francisco area, in 2019. During a webinar hosted by the Eno Center for Transportation on June 17, Crunican noted that federal funding is important in helping to keep critical transportation workers at their posts.

“The folks closest to the work usually have the best thoughts and suggestions to bring forward anyway,” Crunican said.

Robert Puentes, president of the Eno Center, noted that stay-at-home orders put in place because of the pandemic have led to reduced ridership and tax revenues. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials projects the pandemic to reduce state transportation revenue by about 30% (approximately $50 billion) over the next 18 months.

“These ongoing health concerns mean that the timing of return-to-normal operations are uncertain,” Puentes said during the webinar, which marked the second session in the Eno Center’s Road to Recovery webinar series.

Darnell Grisby, director of policy development and research at the American Public Transportation Association, identified the pandemic — and the low traffic levels resulting from it — as an opportunity to reorient street networks as a way to support transit and pedestrian needs.

“This is a great opportunity to take this crisis and do something good with it,” Grisby said.

Crunican noted that some agencies have gotten creative with ways to keep people safe during the pandemic, such as setting up barriers around bus drivers and placing symbols on the floors of buses to maintain social distance.

Also, Crunican noted that rail systems could use this time as an opportunity to complete repair projects.

“Now is an incredibly good time for rail systems to do state-of-good repair work,” Crunican said. “It’s a good time to invest in a rail system and get the system back in order. Any funding that could be provided to systems that have plans in place would be an added boost.”

Crunican noted that challenges will be different for different transportation systems. She also stressed the importance of listening to transit riders to understand what measures should be taken to bring them back to the transportation system in a safe and appropriate manner.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty that’s out there,” Crunican said. “I think transit reflects the rest of the country. Every system is different. People are still trying to feel their way back to what they know.”

Christopher Pangilinan, head of global policy for public transportation at Uber Technologies Inc., emphasized the importance of concrete evidence to reassure people that transit systems are safe for public use. He mentioned the New York City subway system in the 1980s, which many people considered unsafe at the time.

“We don’t want that to happen again because of COVID,” Pangilinan said.

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