VACo recently joined the Virginia Faces of Transit Coalition, which is an effort organized by the Virginia Transit Association (VTA) to promote the benefits of transit during this time of ridership declines due to COVID-19. The coalition aims to convince decision makers to maintain financial support of transit due to its nature as an essential service for many Virginians who need it to access work, medical care, school, and basic necessities. Transit is also critical in reducing traffic from single-occupancy vehicles and their carbon emissions.
The coalition’s video (www.FacesofTransit.org) highlights the different reasons why public transit matters. There are 40 transit agencies in the Commonwealth of Virginia that receive capital and operating support from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT). According to data from VTA, in FY 2019 public transportation provided $4.4 billion in economic benefits to Virginia, reduced passenger miles on roads by 1.1 billion, and prevented more than 130,000 metric tons of carbon emissions from being released.
COVID-19 poses unique challenges to transit systems including reduced ridership numbers, which in turn impacts funding based on ridership fares. In FY 2019, fares accounted for approximately 26 percent of Virginia’s transit funding. High unemployment rates and work-from-home arrangements have eliminated commuting for many workers, while fear of contracting the virus on buses or trains is a disincentive for other riders. Transit agencies and workers still provide essential services while focusing on the safety of employees and riders.
In March, DRPT and the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) authorized $11 million in statewide public transportation operating funding to be made available to all Virginia public transportation agencies suffering major ridership losses and additional operating expenses due to the pandemic. This was the equivalent of one month of statewide operating revenues allocated to the Commonwealth Mass Transit Fund. Additionally, passage of the federal CARES Act provided Virginia with approximately $456 million in funding that did not require a state or local match and is nearly three times the amount of federal transit funding appropriated to Virginia Transit Agencies in FY 2020.
This followed actions by the 2020 regular session of the General Assembly to reorganize the transportation funding formulas giving public transportation 23 percent of the transportation trust fund. This is projected to grow transit’s funding over biennial budget from $1.34 billion to $1.41 billion and increase total new money for transit by $712 million over the Six-Year Improvement Plan (SYIP). Legislation also created a transit ridership incentive program to expand regional corridors and reduce fares.
Despite this infusion of aid, many transit agencies are facing large budget gaps for FY 2021 and FY 2022. For instance, the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) projects an expected budget gap of more than $200 million for FY 2021 and potentially more than $700 million for FY 2022. VACo President and Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Jeff McKay recently wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post highlighting the need for additional federal aid.
VACo will continue to advocate for additional state and federal support for public transit and transportation improvements in general. More information and resources pertaining to public transit can be viewed here.
VACo Contact: Jeremy R. Bennett