Investigating the Scale and Scope of the Pandemic’s Impact on Transit Operator Budgets, and Pathways Forward

Research Lead: Jacob Wasserman

UC Campus(es): UCLA

Problem Statement: The COVID-19 pandemic and related economic downturn have significantly depressed transit ridership and altered the operations of transit agencies across California. Transit operators have adapted their service to reflect the new needs of a pandemic-stricken state: halting fare collection, blocking off seats to allow for social distancing, cleaning vehicles more regularly, and distributing protective equipment. Although ridership is headed upwards, so far the riders who have returned to transit are those most dependent on public transit for basic mobility. And while agencies have adjusted day-to-day operations, significant longer-term revenue effects loom, casting a cloud of uncertainty over the future of public transit in the state. The various revenue sources that fund transit are in flux, as are transit expenses and expenditures. While federal stimulus funds have helped operators, and while vaccination distribution has helped ease the effects of the pandemic, governmental responses—in city halls, county seats, Sacramento, and Washington, D.C.—to transit’s financial straits will importantly shape the future of the state’s substantial commitment to public transportation, with particular importance for those who depend on transit the most.

Project Description: This study will investigate the scope and scale of the budgetary impact of the pandemic on transit operators and the measures—enacted, proposed, and possible—that transit systems and their funders might adopt in response, both in the near term and over the longer run. This multidisciplinary research will include quantitative analysis of agency financial data as well as qualitative interviews with agency staff and other stakeholders. The project will conclude by outlining various scenarios for the future of public transit funding and operations in California, and their possible impacts on core transit riders. The project team will evaluate the effectiveness and equity of different responses under each scenario and offer an actionable set of solutions for transit operators as circumstances undoubtedly change in the months and years to come.

Status: In Progress

Budget: $80,000

Project Partner(s): California Transit Association