March 27, 2020 1:57PM

Congress Should Be Skeptical of Transit Industry Demand for Bailouts

According to Metro Magazine, transit agencies are now “demanding” that Congress give them $25 billion in bailouts due to COVID-19. This is roughly two years’ worth of federal subsidies to transit.

Unlike the airlines and other industries that get all or nearly all of their revenues from customers, transit agencies already get 50 to 90 percent of their operating funds from taxpayers. That means that, even with no customers, they could keep buses and trains running at reduced schedules.

But why are transit systems running anyway? In this time of social distancing, the safest form of transportation is your private automobile.

Research has shown that “mass transportation systems offer an effective way of accelerating the spread of infectious diseases within communities.” Agencies say they are staying open for the sake of “medical staff, first responders and other essential workers.” In other words, they are encouraging health care and other “essential” people to use the form of transportation whose riders are nearly six times more likely to suffer from upper respiratory infections than those who don’t ride transit.

Rather than give transit even more subsidies on top of subsidies, we ought to shut it down. We should then seriously consider ending subsidies to transit systems when the current crisis is over. Even New York should think about alternate arrangements as its transit systems have more than $120 billion in debts, unfunded maintenance backlogs, and unfunded health care obligations making them clearly unsustainable.

Other than New York, transit is an environmental and social justice disaster, as I’ll show in a forthcoming Cato paper. It uses more energy per passenger mile than the average car In 484 out of 488 urban areas and emits more greenhouse gases in 480 of those urban areas.

Low‐​income commuters were significantly less likely to ride transit to work in 2018 than in 2010, while transit’s major growth market is people who earn more than $75,000 a year. They don’t need the kind of subsidies we are giving transit, and transit agencies certainly don’t need $25 billion in bailouts today.