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North Bay transit agencies counting on next round of federal assistance

Bay Area transit agencies, facing an onslaught of financial hits during the pandemic, are expected to split about $975 million in a second round of emergency federal aid passed by Congress last week and signed by President Donald Trump on Sunday night.

The latest stimulus package, a follow-up to March’s CARES Act, totals nearly $900 billion, and includes $14 billion for the nation’s battered public transportation systems that are reeling from drastic declines in ridership over the past nine months.

As Trump’s brinkmanship escalated, threatening a would-be government shutdown on Tuesday, regional transit operators have been on the verge of even deeper cutbacks. They view the funds as a buttress against months of looming financial uncertainty ahead.

“It’s a vital lifeline as we navigate the long arc of the pandemic,” Denis Mulligan, general manager of the Golden Gate Bridge District that oversees bus, ferry and bridge toll services, said Wednesday. “I also don’t want to sound overly optimistic, as we have big challenges ahead of us until our customers return.”

The legislation, which also provides one-time $600 stimulus checks to many Americans and extends unemployment benefits by another 11 weeks into the middle of March, remained in question through the holiday weekend after Trump expressed dissatisfaction with the bill last Tuesday.

Despite Trump’s decision to delay signing the relief package, some area transit operators, confident the bill would still become law, have already rolled back planned layoffs.

The board for the Golden Gate Bridge District voted unanimously last week to rescind previously scheduled layoffs and six months of furloughs for the agency’s management staff. The decision, which was contingent upon the federal aid package, saves jobs for 150 workers who would have been given pink slips on Jan. 4, and keeps another 60 vacant positions from being frozen.

“This is a wonderful holiday gift that layoffs can be put off — hopefully forever, but at least for a very long time,” said Brian Sobel, one of three bridge district board members who represent Sonoma County. “Workers can breathe a sigh of relief as we move into the new year.”

The aid package passed by Congress last week represents the second infusion of federal dollars into the nation’s ailing mass transit systems.

The CARES Act, which totaled an historic $2.2 trillion, delivered $25 billion worth of transit-specific grants. The Bay Area’s 25 public transit operators, comprised of bus, rail and bridge agencies, received nearly $1.3 billion.

The Golden Gate Bridge District has during the shelter-in-place orders experienced plummeting bridge crossings and major dips in bus and ferry use, severely impacting its main revenue streams. It accepted the largest sum of federal dollars in the North Bay, totaling $51.6 million. SMART took in almost $15 million, while Sonoma County’s three bus systems collected a combined $10.9 million to offset lost income from fares and cuts to other funding streams.

It’s not yet clear how much money individual agencies will receive as part of the newest round of federal relief, which is meant to maintain transportation workforces and service schedules. Once released, the money will go to the region’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which will likely determine in January how to divvy up the dollars across the North Bay, as well as to the larger operators such as BART, San Francisco’s MUNI system and the East Bay’s AC Transit network.

“That’s going to be the big challenge. It’s not going to be easy, and it’s incredibly complex, but it’s not the first time we’ve done this rodeo,” said Randy Rentschler, a MTC spokesman. “My sense is we’ll want to get something out the door as soon as we can, but also there’s a value to doing it what you would call right. And this may be our last chance to get it right, because it could be our last chance to see money like this, so both things will weigh on the decision-makers.”

With its heavy reliance on guaranteed sales tax revenue, as opposed to ticket sales, Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit is among the few operators that have fared relatively well through the crisis. Although revenues were initially expected to nosedive, the roughly $39 million the 3½-year-old system has generated through the tax this year is nearly lock-step with pre-pandemic projections.

Combined with temporary cuts to service and a handful of jobs, the CARES Act aid and a bond debt refinance strategy, SMART is poised to restore its weekend service, as well as a more robust weekday schedule, once rider demand begins to grow again. Still, the agency aims to get its fair share of the new federal funds to retain its trained technical staff and keep trains cleaned and ready for when more customers return.

“Of course in the big picture, any assistance from the federal government or state government to sustain our workforce is more than fair,” said SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian. “And then in each round of negotiations, you negotiate with your peers and as long as there are no winners and losers and everyone understands that we’re in it together, then it’s a very fair process.”

The emergency aid could end up being even more important to Sonoma County’s three bus operators — each of which suspended fare collections in March to reduce driver-passenger contacts while also requesting riders take only essential trips.

All three, including Santa Rosa CityBus, will supplement any coming federal dollars with a plan to reinstate paid rides starting Feb. 1 to help shore up their finances and eventually start adding back more routes.

“The prospects of getting any emergency relief will allow us to be able to sustain our current service levels and then more quickly rebuild our system. I’d say it’s very critical,” said Rachel Ede, deputy director of Santa Rosa’s transportation and public works department. “It backfills all of this lost revenue. Even then, our revenues will still likely take time to recover, especially with fare revenues, but our state funds, too.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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