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Federal bailout saves Bay Area public transit

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The light at the end of the tunnel is a train—gratefully

The light of a train at the end of the Twin Peaks Tunnel. Photo by Jef Poskanzer

Bay Area public transit agencies, starved for funds as millions of regular riders stay home indefinitely, saw some relief this week from the federal government.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) threw systems like BART and Muni a lifeline with hundreds of millions of federal dollars that will keep trains and buses running a bit longer.

The MTC, a body that organizes transit across all nine Bay Area counties, approved dispersal of money from the federal CARES Act after a Wednesday vote. The $780 million cash injection is one of two parts of a $1.3 billion relief package for Bay Area transit agencies.

BART walked away with the largest slice of the pie, getting more than $251 million. Meanwhile, Muni, who just announced a major fare increase, netted a big payday with $197 million.

Other dispersals included more than $80 million for AC Transit, $49 million for Caltrain, and $30 million for Golden Gate Transit.

All of these agencies have seen regular ridership vanish since the first Bay Area counties instituted shelter-in-place rules in March. Nearly every public transit agency in the region has cut back service in an effort to save on expenses.

In many cases, agencies said that federal monetary relief is the only way they could continue operating at a loss in the short-term.

BART has sounded particularly urgent, with board members appealing to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, warning that “BART has limited options” without a bailout. BART estimates that the public health emergency has cost the system $55 million per month, with ridership down a staggering 94 percent since February.

In a statement after the MTC vote, BART General Manager Bob Powers said that “future installments of the CARES Act” will be needed to keep BART running down the line.

Muni is staring at an enormous budget gap as well, with SFMTA chief Jeffrey Tumlin saying in a virtual open house earlier this month that Muni expects to lose $200 million by the end of June.

“This is the kind of money that we most need,” Tumlin said of the bailout, adding that without federal funds Muni would be hard-pressed to keep up with its payroll.