A $186 million infusion of federal stimulus money to the Metropolitan Council should help Metro Transit get through a challenging year after the COVID-19 pandemic devastated ridership on the region's buses and trains.
"It is great news for us," said Charlie Zelle, chairman of the Met Council, which operates Metro Transit.
The most recent funding lifeline, part of the national $900 billion pandemic stimulus package hashed out by Congress last month, will likely mean millions for Metro Transit — though the Met Council hasn't yet determined how much.
Once COVID-19 hit last spring, ridership on trains and buses plunged as many passengers opted to work from home and the pandemic's economic fallout hit. Ridership overall is down about 60% since then, but the decline varies depending on the mode of transit.
Commuter bus routes from the suburbs and the Northstar commuter rail, which connects downtown Minneapolis and Big Lake, have seen ridership fall 95%. But core local bus routes and popular rapid bus service, including the A and C lines, have seen a decline of 40% to 50% — more of a slow bleed than a hemorrhage.
The pandemic-related ridership decline also has punched a giant hole in the amount of revenue Metro Transit collects in fares. In 2019, $99 million was collected from passengers, a figure expected to be about 58% lower for 2020.
In response to the decline in ridership, Metro Transit cut about 20% of its service routes, though it was able to avoid layoffs, said General Manager Wes Kooistra. The decline, he said, "reflects the change in work habits through the pandemic."
While 51% of Americans surveyed by Gallup last April said they were "always" working remotely at the height of restrictions on businesses and schools, that number declined to 33% by last fall. Gallup, the national polling firm, surveyed some 2,750 people for its study.
The fall survey also indicated that nearly two-thirds of U.S. workers who were working remotely during the pandemic said they would like to continue doing so.
However, testimony Tuesday at the Legislature suggested that fewer than 20% of Black and Hispanic workers have been able to work from home. "Telecommuting is not for everyone," said Adeel Lari, a researcher at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, speaking before the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee.
"Transit is definitely needed, but it's going to take years to get back to the ridership levels [of years past]," Zelle said.
When the pandemic took hold last spring, an initial $2 trillion federal bailout resulted in Metro Transit receiving $190 million to help keep it afloat.
More help could be coming. President-elect Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion rescue plan includes $20 billion for the "hardest hit" transit systems nationally. Whether that would include Metro Transit is unclear.
The federal money doled out so far, plus reserve funds, will help balance the 2021 budget. But Met Council officials maintain that a dedicated funding source is needed to pay for transportation in the future. Met Council spokeswoman Terri Dresen said that once federal funds run out, an $80 million deficit looms for Metro Transit over the next year.
Kooistra said that while Metro Transit is grateful for the federal support, "in the end, we're still paying the mortgage with one-time money."
But as the COVID-19 vaccine is rolled out, customers may feel more comfortable using public transportation again. Metro Transit currently advises passengers to use bus and train service only for essential trips, such as commutes to work.
Kooistra said Metro Transit plans on "bringing the welcoming message back" to passengers beginning mid- to late summer. By stating transit should be used only for essential purposes, he said, "it's really hard on our organization to have to work against our mission in trying to expand ridership and meet peoples' mobility issues. As soon as we can get back safely, we will."
Janet Moore • 612-673-7752