Can public transit in Delaware recover from COVID-19?
Use of public transportation has plummeted as a result of the coronavirus. It is unclear whether fare revenue will rebound next fiscal year, and some government subsidies in the region look uncertain.
The pandemic will likely cost DART $3 million this fiscal year by the time it ends June 30, says Delaware Transit Corporation CEO John Sisson.
DART bus ridership is down 70 percent. The transit system has temporarily suspended fares in an attempt to protect drivers from coming in contact with riders. And costs are up due to the need for more cleaning and supplies.
But Sisson does not expect a reduction in the state subsidy to DART next fiscal year, despite a projected$491 million state budget shortfall, because he says Delaware received $61 million in federal relief from the CARES Act for transit.
“That will obviously cover our loss in this year and cover increased costs and losses going into next year, and also help offset the losses and the funding sources that cover our [state] subsidy,” Sisson said.
Pennsylvania’s SEPTA, which serves Delaware with some bus and regional rail lines, estimates it could lose $150 million by the end of the fiscal year as a result of the virus. Fare revenue has all but dried up.
“It’s so small, it’s almost not even worth counting,” said SEPTA general manager Leslie Richards. “It’s in the hundreds, maybe in the thousands, as opposed to the hundred millions.”
"Social distancing and transit aren't really something you think of together." - Leslie Richards, SEPTA
Richards estimates next year’s losses could be staggering —in part due to state and local subsidies likely to take hits. She says in the past two months, ridership on SEPTA’s regional rail has fallen by 95 percent, and transit ridership is down by at least 70 percent. In the long term, demand may change if more people work from home.
“We’re really not sure how ridership will come back,” she said. “So we’re not sure whether we should run numbers [for next fiscal year] anticipating that it would come back at twenty percent, forty percent, fifty percent, sixty percent.”
Richards says SEPTA received $644 million in federal relief through the CARES Act, but it’s not enough. “The amount that we’ve received so far is in no way going to get us through this crisis and on stable financial footing anytime soon,” she said.
The virus has also posed a challenge to staffing. So far, more than 260 SEPTA employees have tested positive, and at least seven have died.
Septa buses have “one-way” aisles now: riders are asked to pay at the front, sit in marked seats and exit through the back.
“Social distancing and transit aren’t really something you think of together,” said Richards. “Our system that was designed to carry as many people as possible, efficiently and as safely as possible, is being asked to do something differently now.”
"We hope in the long term the ridership does come back, and it comes back even stronger." - Bill Swiatek, WILMAPCO
With future funding uncertain, Richards says SEPTA is reevaluating all planned capital projects. “Pretty much everything’s on the board.”
Bill Swiatek is a planner at the Wilmington Area Planning Council, or WILMAPCO, which helps plan transportation in the Wilmington metro area. He says the organization aims for expansion of transit as a more environmentally and financially sustainable option for communities. But Swiatek admits transit may take a hit in the short term.
“New York City after 9/11, it took six years for the subway ridership to reach pre-9/11 ridership levels,” he said. “So events like this sometimes can have a big impact on public transit. But we hope in the long term the ridership does come back and it comes back even stronger.”
Swiatek argues funding for capital improvements to transit was insufficient even before the pandemic.
“Transit really hasn’t had a chance to have a nice makeover and push some major improvements in the system that would make a big difference in ridership. So that was one of the things that we were looking at doing in the long range plan, before the pandemic hit,” he said. “The mentality of folks, whether or not they use the system, will take a hit in the short term. But in the long term we’re still focused on improving the transit system in the region— and looking at how to do that from a land use perspective and a system improvement perspective.
Sisson of the Delaware Transit Corporation is similarly optimistic.
“I think when we get through this, there might actually be some better positive looks on transit and transportation,” he said. “As we’ve seen the reduction in pollution because less cars are on the road, I hope people look at that and say, hey, transit can be something that helps us reduce pollution. … So we might want to be investing in not just public transit but other multimodal ways, whether it’s biking or walking.”
Richards of SEPTA says funding transit as an essential service will be crucial going forward.
“Transit is integral to the recovery of urban areas, to the recovery of major metropolitan areas in this country,” she said. “I don’t think there is any major metropolitan area that can exist without transit. So we know that we are tied with the economic recovery of this region here at SEPTA, but also with how everyone comes back.”
Richards says SEPTA will be looking to how transit systems in countries like China and Italy recover from the virus.