Nearly two months after President Joe Biden signed a COVID stimulus bill directing $1.7 billion in relief funds to the Bay Area’s public transportation agencies, that money has not yet been spent — even as many transit systems keep pandemic-related service cuts in place.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which is responsible for distributing the funds to BART, Caltrain and two-dozen other bus, train and ferry operators, is still determining how it wants to divvy that money up and ensure the various agencies’ long-term health.

A coalition of transit employee unions and riders say the delay is unacceptable.

Hundreds of bus riders are being left stranded at stops each day because of capacity limits meant to allow for social distancing, and others are having to contend with scaled-back service, all of which makes public transit slow, unreliable and unattractive, according to the People’s Transit Alliance. The group rallied outside the MTC’s San Francisco headquarters Thursday afternoon to demand that it release stimulus funds right away.

AC Transit Director Jovanka Beckles warned that as the economy reopens and more people return to work and travel, many will choose to drive instead of taking public transit if service cuts are still in place. Rather than socking the money away for a potential years-long recovery, Beckles said agencies should use it right away to restore cuts and hire more drivers.

“Those funds were intended to help transit systems get back to pre-pandemic (service) levels,” she said. “If we are not able to do that — if we are not reliable — then we are going to lose riders.”

Public transportation faced a financial crisis last year, when lockdowns and worries about catching coronavirus in shared spaces chased away most passengers — although many essential workers and those who aren’t able to drive have kept riding throughout the pandemic. Its recovery has been achingly slow: BART, which once carried over 400,000 riders each weekday, has only in recent days climbed back over 60,000.

The MTC has already distributed $2.3 billion from the first two federal COVID relief packages, which spokesman Randy Rentschler said has made up for the fare revenue transit agencies lost and prevented the need for layoffs or more drastic service cuts. Rentschler rejected the idea that the MTC has hoarded money while transit agencies struggle, and said operators have not expressed an urgent need for the third round of funds.

“No one is sitting on any money,” he said. “Money has been available as it has been needed.”

As for the third relief package, Biden’s American Rescue Plan, documents posted to the MTC website indicate the commission plans to distribute the money over the summer, following a workshop with transit agency leaders in June.

The previous monetary packages have given the commission breathing room this time around, Rentschler said, and it’s taking time to decide how to spend the money because “this is likely the last one we’re going to get.”

If that prediction holds true, the transit alliance’s desire to restore service cuts right away could be risky — if riders don’t come back, transit systems may find themselves staring down deep deficits once again. But Beckles and others in the group, which is a subcommittee of East Bay Democratic Socialists of America, say keeping service at reduced levels will make the projections of a years-long recovery a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“With reliable service (and) with safety precautions continuing,” Beckles said, “riders will be more inclined to return to using transit.”


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