Originally published April 20, 2020 in APTA Passenger Transport.
While the Seattle region recently thought of itself as the coronavirus epicenter, it’s now tragically clear that we were just a few weeks ahead of the lethal curve. At Sound Transit, even with an 87 percent drop in ridership, we struggle to adequately staff service for the 13 percent who still need us for essential trips. To guarantee the safety of the construction workforce, we’ve temporarily suspended 80 percent of our construction and face major impacts to our revenues for completing the largest transit expansion program in the nation.
Our industry faces unprecedented levels of uncertainty surrounding the future of our operations, our ridership, our revenues and how we will fit into the nation’s economic recovery.
In trying to predict what the future holds, many colleagues are looking back at the Great Recession. We will be lucky if it’s only that bad. In 2009, I helped write the Recovery Act while working in the Senate and then moved to the FTA to administer it. The economy back then deteriorated terribly, but over a number of quarters. In the last month, however, we may have just fallen off the steepest cliff with only one step. In three weeks, we went from full employment to 10 percent unemployment. Analysts say it could triple from there. Traditional revenue sources, especially sales taxes, have plummeted.
Once governors lift stay-at-home orders, continued social distancing could require even more vehicles in service. Operators will rightly insist on continued protection while we struggle to reintroduce fare collection. Despite calls to obligate CARES Act grants quickly, many agencies will need to safeguard every dollar until they know they can meet payroll in 12, 18 or 24 months. Fears of public gatherings, in combination with cheaper gas, might keep choice riders away, while the numbers and needs of struggling, transit-dependent riders grow. At the same time, state and local governments will start to retrench, laying off employees while cutting spending across many, if not all, sectors.
Against this ugly backdrop, it’s imperative that we, as an industry, revise our priorities for Congress and the Administration immediately. In his letter to the House and Senate leadership calling for enactment of a multiyear reauthorization bill as a further response to the COVID crisis, APTA President Paul Skoutelas rightly noted that “as we continue to assess the impacts of COVID-19, APTA is exploring the need for further funding and policy changes beyond our current recommendations.” We need to get about the business of crafting those changes right now. For all the excellent work that went into APTA’s original reauthorization proposals, they were developed for a very different time. The recent responses to the crisis by the Federal Reserve and Congress make clear that old rules no longer apply. We need to be unabashed and unapologetic in seeking what we need.
Coming on the heels of the $2 trillion CARES Act that included no offsetting revenues, congressional champions and APTA have identified a huge opportunity to pass a multiyear authorization bill while bypassing the need to pay for it. But if the CARES Act was all about keeping the doors open, the next federal response to COVID-19 must be focused on replenishing the revenues that are disappearing all around us. A multiyear authorization bill, even with robust growth levels, won’t get that job done unless it includes even higher and historic investment levels that are frontloaded for the next two years.
During the Great Recession, when most of construction had gone dormant, Sound Transit was one of the few players in our region hiring tradespeople off the bench. Today, we are working to open 28 new light rail stations in the next five years, with further expansions beyond that. Our light rail projects represent four of the region’s five largest construction projects. Transit ridership continues to rise here, with nearly half of downtown Seattle commuters choosing transit. In 2016, our region’s citizens voted to raise their taxes to underwrite a $54 billion program that would generate more than 220,000 jobs over 25 years, all with an assumed federal contribution of just 16 percent.
In the last few weeks, it’s become clear that the 84 percent of our program funded locally is in for a shock. Our hometown carrier, Alaska Airlines—the nation’s 5th largest airline—is flying empty planes and cutting service by 70 percent. Cruise ships that usually deliver 1.2 million passengers here each summer may this year deliver zero. With the International Monetary Fund predicting that we will face a global contraction more closely approximating the Great Depression than the Great Recession, the only way Sound Transit will maintain its role as a major provider and employer is with a federal contribution far higher than 16 percent.
Here in the Puget Sound, we won’t hesitate to ask for it. We will be asking Congress to ensure that we maintain our place at the center of our region’s recovery. We will persistently point to the critical service we provide and the many thousands of jobs we create. I urge all my colleagues to do the same—without apology and without reservation.