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New Era, New Challenges

The past two years have been full of enormous challenges for transit, motor coach, and school bus workers, and federal legislation proved to be key to our members’ survival. Together, we pushed the U.S. Congress to provide a lifeline to American transit systems -- nearly $70 billion in three separate COVID-19 rescue bills that allowed the agencies to buy personal protective equipment (PPE) and make payroll so that our members could keep their jobs. Billions more were sent to ATU-represented motor coach and school bus companies. Without this aid, supported by Democrats in Congress and President Joe Biden, most of our jobs would have been lost, and our Union itself could have vanished.


We survived.

But now, as the masks come off and we hopefully turn the page on the pandemic, other obstacles are quickly coming at us like a speeding train. Our riders are not coming back very quickly, and some may never return. While transit-dependent people will always be there,
the coronavirus has likely forever changed the way we think about commuting to work. Companies have learned that most people can get their work done from home, and many businesses are closing offices in the downtown areas. Even if companies keep their office space, workers are commuting just two or three days per week. Many of our customers are gone, and their fare box revenue made up a significant percentage of operating funds for the transit systems, with a huge impact on service levels and payroll.

Look around. Does your downtown area look like a ghost town? Many of the restaurants and bars that were full of people just three years ago have gone out of business. Why do we care? Because the sales taxes they generated provided a lot of dedicated funding to our transit systems.

Moreover, the federal COVID relief money is drying up, and the 2020 emergency rules that temporarily allowed all systems to use their FTA funds for operating aid have expired. That hurts the agencies, especially as fuel costs skyrocket. Even as ridership may rise as people try to avoid high gas prices at the pump, transit systems could ironically be forced to slash service (and jobs) if they don’t have the funding needed to put buses on the street. While the new infrastructure bill will provide lots of money for new equipment, the funding can’t generally be used for service or payroll.    

What’s the answer? More operating assistance. State legislatures and local governments are going to have to step up and provide more money for transit. Congress may need to allow more flexibility in how FTA funds are used. But lawmakers won’t act unless transit advocates get to work. Our members and Union will need to lead the charge once again. Never a dull moment.