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Report: New England Public Transit Programs Saw Huge Declines, But Stimulus Programs Filled Financial Gaps

COAST bus
Via COAST on Twitter
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Ridership of public transit systems across the region plummeted during the first 14 months of the pandemic, according to a new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. In New Hampshire, Nashua’s public bus network served 339,000 fewer riders between March 2020 and June 2021 than expected, while the COAST network saw 295,000 fewer riders.

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Federal stimulus programs including the CARES Act, however, more than made up for lost revenues, the analysis found.

“Seeing a dip in ridership does have a direct impact on how they are able to collect revenue to support their operations,” Riley Sullivan, a senior policy analyst at the Fed, said. “Luckily, the three stimulus packages that have been passed more than filled the existing gap that was generated.”

graph showing ridership plummeting on public transportation
Federal Reserve Bank of Boston
The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston's study found ridership declined by more than 50% on most public transportation networks in the region.

Sullivan, who authored the report, looked at 38 different transit systems across New England, including the MBTA, the region’s largest public transportation system. The analysis found that most transit systems received enough funding to cover their entire respective operating budgets for between one and two full years.

That buffer of funding, Sullivan said, is now presenting policymakers and transit administrators with a choice.

“Some people are arguing that it is possible that taking this money that they have right now, and possibly even more money if the bipartisan infrastructure bill passes, and really investing it in these transit systems could be the opportunity to get ridership back on these systems, possibly to pre-pandemic levels or at least close to it,” he said.

But with ridership still well below those pre-pandemic levels on many public transit networks, Sullivan said some in the industry are advocating to save the already-received federal funds to cover future expected losses.

“So that would be the slashing services side of the argument,” Sullivan said.

Public transit served as a lifeline for many essential workers during the pandemic, the report found, along with other workers who didn’t have remote options.

In New Hampshire, a shortage of available bus drivers is compounding problems for regional transit providers. COAST has had to curtail certain bus routes due to a driver shortage, despite raising its starting wages multiple times in recent months.