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As recently as a month ago, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority was talking about increasing service, having finally turned a corner after years of precipitous ridership declines.
The gains were wiped out in a couple of weeks as the coronavirus pandemic swept the country, shutting down normal life and crippling Metro and transit systems nationwide as people teleworked and stayed home out of fear, by government order or because they had been laid off.
In New York, trains on what is normally the nation’s busiest subway system were running mostly empty last week and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was tapping $1 billion from its line of credit to stay afloat. A statewide shelter-in-place order in California prompted even more service cuts for Bay Area Rapid Transit in the San Francisco region — which was already dipping into its $50 million reserve fund to keep operating. And by Friday, the D.C. region’s Metro was projecting a deficit of more than $50 million a month.
The financial losses for the transit sector are projected to be in the billions and the impacts and disruptions could stretch for weeks if not more, say experts and transit leaders who fear that even when the crisis is over, recovery could take months, if not years.
“We really could set back transportation in this country by decades if we don't act,” said Jim Mathews, president and chief executive of the Rail Passengers Association. “The risk is insane.”
As Congress works on coronavirus response legislation, transit and rail systems are also seeking billions of dollars in federal assistance. The White House has outlined a $1 trillion bailout package for the country, including $50 billion for airlines and $500 million for Amtrak. Advocates say transit and commuter rail should be at the forefront of any rescue plan because of the vast numbers of people they serve.
This article first appeared on www.washingtonpost.com
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