Surveying the Financial Conditions of California’s Public Transit Operators: An Early to Mid-Pandemic Comparison

Research Team: Jacob Wasserman (lead), Brian Taylor, and Fariba Siddiq

UC Campus(es): UCLA

Problem Statement: Initially, the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to inflict severe and lasting damage to public transit agencies in California, potentially laying off workers; shuttering lines for months, if not permanently; stranding essential workers who depend on transit; and even bankrupting some transit systems.Transit agencies managed to avoid the abyss in 2022 thanks to federal financial relief from three stimulus bills and stronger-than-expected bounce-back of tax revenues from state and local sources. However, they still face an uncertain financial future. Meanwhile, operational challenges and, increasingly, workforce issues have hampered returns to regular service, as ridership recovers only slowly, each potentially affecting transit budgets.

Project Description: This project assessed the past, present, and immediate future of public transit finance in Southern California through interviews, surveys, and data on federal stimulus funding for transit operators. The results indicate that, while the federal stimulus may have provided a bridge to keep agencies from falling off a fiscal cliff in the first two years of the pandemic, the longer-term financial picture varies substantially across transit systems. Furthermore, labor issues, rather than finances, hampered transit services in early 2022, underscoring difficult working conditions, broader economic trends, and competition from other industries.

Status: Completed

Budget: $9,811