Society and employment as many urban Texans know them continue changing at breakneck speed as officials move to stem the growing spread of the new coronavirus, but the state's largest transit agencies are still operating trains and buses.
Ridership is falling, to be sure. But officials across the state say public transit hasn't been singled out as a specific source of spread — and many of the state's low-wage workers and front-line responders to the virus have no other option for getting to work.
“Transit provides a critical service for many, including those currently stocking the grocery stores or nurses and medical technicians. We are committed to providing this critical service as long as we are able to,” said Mariette Hummel, a spokesperson for Austin's Capital Metro.
Still, transit officials said people who have COVID-19 symptoms should not be riding. And those who need to hop on a bus or train should still practice social distancing.
“So skip a seat between you and the next person and keep your distance," Hummel said. "Stay home if you are sick, wash your hands and if someone seems sick, move away.”
Agencies have intensified their efforts to sanitize trains, buses and stops using the antimicrobial cleaning supplies developed to fight the SARS and MRSA infections.
There have been dramatic drops in ridership, which has prompted agencies to discuss whether they need to lessen frequency of trains and buses. In Austin, CapMetro already announced changes to some routes. But officials also want to ensure that some of the state's most financially vulnerable people don't lose access to their jobs.
“There's a large segment of our ridership that have family incomes of $20,000 a year or less,” said Jeffrey Arndt, CEO of Via, the regional transit agency in San Antonio's Bexar County. “We know that they're very likely to work service jobs, which means they probably are not going to have sick time, they probably are not going to be paid if they don't come into work.”
His agency has seen a 25% dip in ridership.
"But that means 75% of the people are still riding the bus, and they're trying to get somewhere," he said. "A lot of times it's to work or to medical services. There is a need to maintain service as best we can in this rapidly changing environment.”
On Monday, Houston’s regional system reported a drop of 20%, while Austin’s ridership fell in 40%. In the Dallas area, bus users decreased by 35.7% and light-rail passengers by 25.7%. The Trinity Railway Express, which connects Dallas and Fort Worth, saw almost half of the users that it had at the same time in 2019.
Since Monday, the CEOs of Austin’s CapMetro, Dallas Area Rapid Transit, Houston’s Metro and San Antonio’s Via have been having daily phone meetings to share their experiences with these kinds of measures and other possible challenges ahead.
“It's useful to know what's happening in their system and how they're approaching it, because this is an extremely unusual circumstance we're all in. We are all learning from each other as we go along,” Arndt said.
Public transit agencies are already evaluating the financial consequences of the crisis. The impact might come not only from fewer fares, but also from less money coming from sales tax revenues, which fund large portions of their operations and have taken a beating as people socially distance to stem the virus' spread.
“Especially in the short term, this will clearly have an impact on budgets,” said Kyle Shelton, professor at Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “In terms of how this fits into long-term revenue projections, this could be smoothed out, but obviously it will depend on how long the crisis lasts.”
In San Antonio, Via might be particularly affected, given that the agency only receives half a cent of the sales tax.
“If the sales tax, for example, would go down, there would be changes we would have to make, whether that would be deferring some capital investment in order to save some money for a period of time or reducing service at some level,” Arndt said.
While the financial impact — and potential service changes — are unknown, agencies are already working out different financial scenarios to better plan.
“It's not too soon to be looking at that. Many organizations are like large ships, and large ships don't move on a dime,” said Arndt.
Shelton said the federal government might need to include relief aid for transit agencies as Congress works out an economic stimulus package.
“The standard compensation should be on the same bar as how we are supporting airlines, how we are supporting the economy overall,” said Shelton.
Disclosure: Via Metropolitan Transit, Capital Metro and Rice University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.