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Boost for BART: Stimulus deal could send $1.3 billion to Bay Area public transit systems

Bay Area public transit systems that have been battered by massive ridership drops and bracing for a recession are breathing a sigh of relief.

That’s because the $2 trillion stimulus deal hammered out in Washington includes a $25 billion boost for public transportation nationwide — of which an estimated $1.3 billion would flow to agencies in the Bay Area, according to Randy Rentschler, a spokesman for the region’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

The estimate is based on the funding formulas the federal government typically uses to allocate money to different parts of the country, Rentschler said. It will be up to the MTC to decide how much of that money goes to each of the Bay Area transit agencies, in part using its own funding formulas.

California stands to receive billions more from other pieces of the stimulus bill, including state block grants, disaster relief and checks paid directly to residents. The Senate was moving toward a vote on the package late Wednesday.

The extra money for public transportation will be used to patch what could have been devastating budget gaps for bus, rail and ferry systems around the Bay Area.

BART General Manager Robert Powers cheered the funding on Wednesday — though he indicated the system could need even more help.

“These emergency funds can be the difference between needing to shut down when our reserves run out and maintaining service to keep the San Francisco Bay Area moving,” Powers said. “There is more work to do and this is only one step towards keeping the trains running, but it is a significant down payment for the essential workers in the region and commuters when they return.”

Advocates say public transportation has been particularly vulnerable to the economic damage being wrought by the coronavirus.

BART has been lobbying lawmakers for emergency funding with increasing urgency since its ridership began falling dramatically earlier this month. With all of California now under orders to stay home except for essential trips, just 32,117 passengers rode BART on Tuesday — down 92 percent from a typically weekday of over 400,000.

That’s a big problem for BART because the system relies on passenger fares and parking fees for most of its operating budget — unlike the vast majority of public transportation agencies, which are mainly funded with taxes.

And another threat has been looming for Bay Area’s public transit systems: Declining sales tax revenue in a souring economy. That would further drain BART’s resources, but it would represent a much bigger hit to other transit agencies, such as VTA, that get most of their funding from taxes.

Rentschler noted sales taxes are likely already down because of factors like declining tourism and canceled conventions, while a recession many experts say is likely headed our way could cause further damage.