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[Editor's note: This article was updated on April 13 to correct that it is the New Orleans RTA that has suspended fares, not the Greater Cleveland RTA.]
By Julie Sneider and Vesna Brajkovic
Governments, transit-rail agencies and railroads have been spending the past several weeks responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
In March, Congress passed a massive federal stimulus package and two other bills to help the nation deal with the coronavirus pandemic. The $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), which President Donald Trump signed March 27, contains billions of dollars for the transportation industry, including $25 billion in grants for public transit agencies and more than $1 billion in operating assistance for Amtrak to help the railroad recover revenue losses.
The Federal Transit Administration will allocate the public transit agency funding through formula operating and capital grants aimed at preventing, preparing for and responding to COVID-19. The funding is the largest appropriation in the history of the U.S. transit program, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
The CARES Act also contains legislative language that directs the Federal Highway Administration to clarify that states can issue special permits that allow trucks to exceed weight limits when delivering COVID-19 relief supplies, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).
Moreover, the CARES Act includes measures that ensure rail workers will have access to unemployment and sickness benefits during the public health emergency.
Other federal help might be on the way. House Democratic leaders continue to work on ambitious plans for a fourth coronavirus relief package.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in media reports that Democrats were in the early stages of crafting a major bill that would protect health care workers, help shore up hospitals and nursing homes, and invest substantial funding in infrastructure. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said March 30 in a notice to lawmakers that no votes are expected before April 20, CNN.com reported.
Questions about regsAs Congress grappled with legislation, federal agencies responded to the pandemic by addressing industry questions about regulatory compliance during the crisis. For example, on March 19, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) released guidance to help state and local governments and the private sector identify “essential critical infrastructure workers” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Then, on March 25, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) announced it was temporarily easing certain regulations to help railroads focus on continuing operations while also following social distancing and other public health guidance from the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. The FRA’s “crucial regulatory relief” addressed a variety of provisions generally conditioned on workforce shortages and other business constraints as a direct result of the COVID-19 impact from meeting deadlines for certain mandated safety tests, inspections and other actions.
While federal, state and local governments responded to the virus, Amtrak, commuter railroads, transit agencies and freight railroads carried out various measures to protect riders, employees and customers. Those measures included sanitizing rolling stock, equipment, stations and other facilities. On the public transportation side, transit agencies and Amtrak reported ridership during the first weeks of the pandemic had fallen by as much as 90 percent amid social distancing and shelter-in-place orders in major markets.
In response to declining ridership and revenue losses, most agencies have reduced their rail schedules, canceled select trains or suspended late-night service. Others suspended operations entirely, including the Brightline commuter-rail service in South Florida, the Rio Metro Regional Transit Authority’s New Mexico Rail Runner Express commuter railroad and the Las Vegas Monorail.
Also, Brightline laid off 250 of its more than 300 employees, The Miami Herald reported.
In California, Bay Area Rapid Transit and the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) commuter railroad both logged a 90 percent decrease in ridership. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority in March recorded a 50 percent to 60 percent decline in ridership related to the pandemic.
In New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) New York City Transit, Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad in March logged ridership declines of 87 percent, 76 percent and 94 percent, respectively, compared with the same time last year.
As essential rail services continue at a reduced level, a number of engineers and operators on the front lines across North America have contracted COVID-19, including those employed by Metra in Chicago, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County in Houston and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.
The most high-profile confirmed COVID-19 cases in the transit industry — which were announced in March — include Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Executive Director Rick Cotton and MTA Chief Executive Officer and Chairman Patrick Foye.
To further enforce social distancing and help slow the spread of the virus, Amtrak, Sound Transit, New Orleans Regional Transit Authority and Metro Transit-St.Louis suspended cash fare collection. Amtrak also has reduced capacity on its trains to 50 percent to maintain social-distancing recommendations.
Meanwhile, the Canadian government last month implemented new requirements for intercity passenger-rail companies to follow to help contain COVID-19’s spread. Amtrak, VIA Rail Canada Inc., Great Canadian Railtour Co. Ltd., Keewatin Railway Co., White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad and Transport Ferroviaire Tshiuetin Inc. are required to screen passengers for virus symptoms before they board a train, and refuse riders who present those symptoms.
What happens this month remains to be seen, as the pandemic stay-at-home orders continue across various states.