Watch CBS News

Bay Area transit operators facing huge budget shortfall as potential fiscal cliff looms

Bay Area transit agencies staring at future budget shortfalls in the billions
Bay Area transit agencies staring at future budget shortfalls in the billions 04:37

SAN FRANCISCO -- Bay Area transit operators have a looming obstacle ahead of them: a massive budget shortfall, and a potential fiscal cliff.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) expects operators to face a cumulative shortfall of between $2.5 and $3.3 billion over the next five years.

Federal COVID-19 relief funds of $4.4 billion helped keep Bay Area transit operators moving through the pandemic, but the relief funds are running out and ridership isn't roaring back.

"We are approaching Sacramento in the near-term as state funding, being the ideal kind of approach and solution, but we are working closely with operators to think about not only could we put a regional measure on the ballot, but what are some other options that are on the table?" said MTC Director of Legislation & Public Affairs Rebecca Long.

Ridership across all transit operators is at 55% of pre-pandemic levels, according to the MTC.

"It's not like everyone is on the same trajectory. Some systems that are much more serving the commute would we anticipate have a different outcome than those that are much more serving local service and have recovered as much as 80% of their pre-covid ridership," said Long. "Different operators are facing different forecasts. Some were not as reliant on fare revenue in the past, they were getting most of their revenue through sales taxes for example, or other types of subsidies."

Long attributes much of the slow ridership return to many companies continuing some version of remote work.

"We've seen a seismic shift in how the private sector and even the public sector approach work and where it can occur," she said. "There is a real structural challenge that we're looking at."

If a robust recovery doesn't happen and revenues remain low, the worst-case scenario could result in across the board reductions in transit service. Operators that traditionally have served the commute, such as BART and Caltrain, would likely be most affected, says Long.

"The worst-case scenario is that all revenues are lower, there's no robust recovery which would be keeping ridership down, and again, that would mean having to decimate service across the board," she said. "Service would not resemble what it does today."

Service reduction is the worst-case scenario, and still likely a ways away, says Long.

"We are optimistic that the legislature will work with us in partnership to find a way to avoid the devastating cuts that would occur if we do not find additional funding," she said. "I wouldn't want folks to panic. I think, as I've said, the real severity of the fiscal cliff is essentially two years from now."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.