Transit agencies from coast to coast are facing massive budget shortfalls as pandemic-era federal funding has dried up and ridership levels still haven't returned to pre-pandemic levels in many cities.
Those budget gaps are forcing many public transit groups to consider staffing reductions, fare hikes and reduction of services.
Tracy Hadden Loh, a fellow at The Brookings Institution who studies transit, says riders will likely start seeing impacts as 2024 begins.
"Now that relief is running out and transit agencies have to figure out where to get revenue from instead for the long term," Hadden Loh said.
The nation's biggest transit systems are now facing a $6.6 billion shortfall through 2026, as ridership numbers have changed post-pandemic. Because of that, many agencies are also considering raising fares or cutting service in 2024.
"It is a challenging situation, the systems in the most trouble in terms of passing balanced budgets are systems dependent on fare revenue as a big piece of their operating budget," Hadden Loh added.
Peter Wilson, a policy adviser at Transportation for Massachusetts says transit agencies need to look beyond fare collection as their primary source of revenue.
"People still need the system. It's not like you can say 'We're not gonna run public transit anymore.' There's a fault in logic that public transit should generate profit or pay for itself," said Wilson.
It's not all bad news, though. Cities like Richmond, Virginia, Albuquerque, New Mexico and Miami, Florida, are all seeing ridership numbers exceeding pre-pandemic levels. With roughly 75% of Americans taking public transit for trips not related to work, Hadden Loh says transit agencies need to think outside the box in 2024 to keep trains and buses rolling.
"We have to meet in a different way. The big transit systems were really dependent on serving commute trips for downtown office workers," she said.
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