Transportation Continues to See Impacts Amidst Pandemic

By Sean Slone, CSG senior policy analyst

From public transit, road construction and auto manufacturing to walking and biking, the coronavirus pandemic continues to make significant impacts in transportation that could change the ways Americans travel for years to come.

Public transit agencies, which received $25 billion in funding under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, are calling on Congress to include $33 billion more in the next COVID-19 aid package, Politico reported. Most transit systems have seen drastically lower ridership and face an uncertain future between ongoing social distancing and hard-hit state budgets.

Meanwhile, a report from a consulting firm suggests that transit agencies will need $23.8 billion in emergency aid just to deal with fallout from the pandemic.

The CEO of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), one of the agencies requesting additional aid, said they expect a $380 million deficit over the next five years as farebox and sales tax revenues have plummeted and the agency has absorbed additional costs from the purchase of masks, gloves and cleaning supplies as well as emergency sick leave.

The New York subway system is among the systems facing the dual challenges of trying to reassure riders by disinfecting trains and stations daily at an enormous cost and keeping employees safe as well, Route Fifty reported.

Expanded transit service could become another casualty of the pandemic in some places. Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack suggested recently the commonwealth consider slowing down a planned upgrade to the commuter rail system, according to CommonWealth magazine. Commuter rail systems, which carry suburban workers to urban jobs, have been the hardest hit form of public transportation during the pandemic, City Lab noted recently, and some have suggested they might never recover.

Even existing public transit systems are expecting a long road back to full capacity. A coronavirus recovery plan for the Washington, D.C. area’s Metro system, for example, doesn’t anticipate a return to pre-pandemic service levels until the spring of 2021, The Washington Post reported.

Road Construction

Many states continue to report disruptions in transportation projects as they face budgetary challenges in the wake of the pandemic. Citing a $1 billion hole in the budget for construction and maintenance, multimodal projects and local governments, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation announced they would delay new construction and downgrade resurfacing to patching and sealing as state highway workers get back to work following a pandemic shutdown.

The Iowa Department of Transportation announced they could delay some road projects over the next five years as the state faces reduced gas tax collections due to motorists driving less.

Missouri is reportedly facing a 30 percent decline in state transportation revenues over the next 18 months amounting to approximately $925 million.

The state DOT in Maine is preparing to lose 24 percent of revenues or $125 million from fuel taxes and motor vehicle fees over the next 18 months. The loss comes as state transportation officials say they are already spending $232 million less than they should to meet the backlog of maintenance, repair and replacement projects.

Reduced funding for road repairs comes at a particularly bad time nationwide as well. According to a new report from TRIP, a Washington, D.C.-based transportation research nonprofit, the rural road transportation system around the country faces a $211 billion backlog in needed improvements.

Other states however say they are full-speed-ahead on road construction and reduced traffic on the roads during the pandemic has facilitated that. The Tennessee Department of Transportation, for example, reported significant headway on projects as less traffic allowed construction crews to work longer hours.

At the direction of Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Florida Department of Transportation will speed up work on 40 transportation projects statewide by at least 650 total contract days — taking advantage of lower traffic volumes, the AASHTO Journal noted.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity meanwhile announced the $25 million Fast-Track Public Infrastructure Grants initiative on May 12 to accelerate work on planned public infrastructure projects around the state this summer.

A $3 trillion COVID-19 relief measure proposed by House Democrats on May 12 would include $15 billion in stopgap funds for state departments of transportation — substantially less than the nearly $50 billion requested by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

Active Transportation

The city of Memphis is reportedly among those communities seeing a significant uptick in the number of people biking and walking during the pandemic.

Even New York City is getting into the act. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced recently that the city will close 12 more miles of streets to cars and open nine miles of new bike lanes.

Seattle plans to permanently close 20 miles of streets to most vehicular traffic, CNN reported recently.

Elsewhere however, funding for programs to provide safe and accessible facilities for cyclists and pedestrians could be endangered by budget cuts. Santa Monica, California’s city council is expected to vote next month on whether to cut discretionary funding for mobility and sustainability programs, The Santa Monica Daily Press reported.

Future of the Auto Industry

The New York Times reports that the auto industry could see a dramatic realignment in the months ahead as declining sales force factories to close and companies to consider takeovers and mergers. The aftermath of the pandemic could also speed the adoption of electric vehicles, some experts say.

But at least one prominent producer of electric vehicles is complaining about lost momentum during the pandemic. Tesla, which had reported profits two quarters in a row and had opened a new factory in China, was forced by the pandemic to shut down the Fremont, California plant that brings in most of the company’s revenues. Elon Musk, the company’s eccentric CEO, has complained about society’s response to the pandemic and about local officials not letting him reopen the factory.