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COVID-19 Pandemic Could Put The Brakes On MTS Plan To Expand Public Transit

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With declining ridership and cutbacks in bus and trolley service due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Metropolitan Transit System's multi-billion-dollar plan to expand transit now hangs in the balance.

Speaker 1: 00:00 Those of us who use public transit will need to check schedules carefully. This week. The metropolitan transit district has cut back on weekday Boston trolley service as of today, but the COBIT 19 pandemic is not only threatening current service, multibillion-dollar future plans to expand public transit and no hanging in the balance. Joining us as Joshua Emerson Smith who covers the environment and transportation for the San Diego union Tribune. Joshua, thanks for being with us. Good to be here. So now MTS has decided to cut bus and Charlie services this week by how much?

Speaker 2: 00:32 Uh, roughly 25%. Uh, the service cuts will mostly be focused on bus service. So routes will continue to operate. All routes will continue to operate, but many of them will see reduced frequency as well as on the blue line trolley, which was the frequency was recently bumped up to, uh, to come every seven and a half minutes. And now that's going to go back to 15.

Speaker 1: 01:00 Why did they do this? Was it lack of riders or shortage of staff?

Speaker 2: 01:04 You know, I think they did this because a lot of transit agencies around the country have seen their bus and train operators get sick and MTS was very concerned that they could have a wave of illnesses among their transit operators.

Speaker 1: 01:23 Yes, New York transit workers were so heavily affected and many have died as a result of not having enough gear early on. Is there any evidence this has been a particularly dangerous job in San Diego so far

Speaker 2: 01:34 particularly dangerous, although when they announced the service cuts last week, they also announced that they had their first driver test positive for Corona virus. But yeah, NCTV took a, a SIM, similar precautions by basically eliminating coaster service on the weekends and then dramatically cutting service during the week. Although we should say the sprinter is still operating. Apparently that was for very similar reasons. Trying to protect the staff and just reduce the, you know, the potential exposure that these drivers have cause it's a dangerous job. Right. Like at this point, uh, with the pandemic, they're coming in contact with a lot of members of the public and this is an essential service for a lot of people, right? They rely on it. They, a lot of people don't have cars. And so if we had a situation where all of the bus and train and trolley drivers got sick, then that could be, that could be really bad for the region as a whole.

Speaker 1: 02:28 Apparently ridership had plummeted in the last couple of weeks, but before the coronavirus outbreak, wasn't transit ridership actually going up?

Speaker 2: 02:35 Yes. Yeah. And MTS was, uh, very, uh, optimistic about their future. They had seen ridership increase after, uh, years of declining ridership, which we should say has infected affected transit riders, uh, all across the nation. Right. But then recently MTS had posted some gains in ridership and we're very excited that obviously this turns back the clock on that pretty dramatically.

Speaker 1: 03:04 Well, let's talk about the future here. MTS is meeting later this week. I understand to decide whether to go ahead on a long planned half cent sales tax initiative that was planned for this November. And this was considered crucial to keep sending and moving in the future. Might this be derailed?

Speaker 2: 03:22 I would be pretty surprised if it went forward at this point to be honest. Um, they are going to have to decide whether or not to go forward and put a half cent sales tax on the November ballot. This is the, the tax proposal that they've been working on for roughly a year now. It includes all kinds of upgrades including a trolley extension to the airport, even at like a sky tram between Sorento Valley and university city. So lots of stuff that they've been planning and designing for months on end. Now all of that could be put on hold and definitely specifically because this was considered a key window for MTS to kind of pounce on this with the presidential election. A turnout was expected to be high and uh, generally that's considered a time when these types of agencies go from massive increases in revenue like this.

Speaker 1: 04:20 But it was already iffy, right? I mean, we saw the tax for the convention center expansion narrowly miss, it's two thirds objective last November.

Speaker 2: 04:28 You know, that's a really good point. Yeah. You know, that's a really good point. Like the MTS polling had showed that it really was just right on the line of having the required two thirds voter support. So even before all of this, it wasn't clear whether it was going to pass or not. And now there's concern that there might be, um, skepticism about riding public transit with the pandemic being what it is, but also the elected officials that are on the MTS board and all of the staff members at the transit agency that just don't really have the time to be working on a major initiative like this. They're just scrambling to keep everything running, you know, as best as possible.

Speaker 1: 05:14 Congress passed this enormous stimulus bill in response to the outbreak. Will transit agencies get any money from that?

Speaker 2: 05:21 Absolutely. I mean, that is a kind of a big lifesaver for MTS and NCT. D the region totally gets more than $300 million. The region totally gets about $325 million in the stimulus package. So that will go a fair distance towards keeping their budgets from just totally imploding, but for how long? Right? Like that's what we don't know.

Speaker 1: 05:50 And in fact, in terms of the current sales tax that is already being used to expand public transit, could that be decimated by this economic downturn?

Speaker 2: 05:59 Yeah, it's just one piece of bad news after the next, I mean, so right now they're dealing with declining ridership, which means declining revenue from fairs. We have to remember that, uh, the metropolitan transit system here in San Diego relies on fair revenue for nearly 40% of its budget. That's pretty high for a transit ridership of its size. So they're taking a huge hit there. But then on top of that, the other piece of public funding for this is the Transnet sales tax, which is also, uh, now headed for steep declines in coming months. So they could get hit twice here as well as local governments. Right. Like the local governments are going to be dealing with the same thing.

Speaker 1: 06:42 Well. Joshua, thank you so much for your perspective and your reporting.

Speaker 2: 06:45 Absolutely. You're welcome. Pleasure to be here.

Speaker 1: 06:48 That's Joshua Emerson Smith, who covers the environment and transportation for the San Diego union Tribune.

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