(TNS) — Metro officials predict it will be months, and possibly years, before bus and rail service ridership return to pre-COVID-19 levels in Houston as economic uncertainty, a lack of firm dates for schools to reopen and commuters choosing to drive dents transit use.
“We have to understand some businesses are not going to reopen, period,” said Kurt Luhrsen, vice president of planning for Metropolitan Transit Authority.
Bus and rail use in the region, always dwarfed by automobile use, faces not only lost riders in fewer workers and students, but also questions circulating among some critics about whether it is safe to ride.
It is a marked change for Metro officials, who three months ago were worried less about keeping riders than kick-starting $7 billion worth of new bus and rail projects approved by voters last November.
Now, transit officials are moving those plans ahead and preparing to open the region’s first bus rapid transit line in mid-August, unsure when demand for the services will return.
For Metro, the changes that came with coronavirus span its operations and finances. Transit officials eliminated fares in mid-March to reduce contact between bus operators and riders, a roughly $6 million monthly loss for the agency.
The biggest hit to Metro’s coffers, however, is a decline in the region’s sales tax revenues. Within Metro’s coverage area that includes most of Harris County along with Houston and 14 other cities, the transit agency is funded mostly from a 1 percent sales tax. Metro’s internal finance analysts expect revenues from the sales tax to drop by $102 million, about 13 percent of what the agency had budgeted for fiscal 2020, which ends Sept. 30.
“We are making some assumptions now,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert cautioned board members last week, noting sales tax revenues take two months to assess, meaning the latest figures are from March. “The reality is, we will probably get a couple months, and won't know the impact until June.”
In the interim, the federal financial response will supplement Metro’s losses, and appear, based on estimates, to maintain the current budget. Metro’s share of Federal Transit Administration funds is $180 million, which officials said would cover all operations and fare revenue declines in the current budget.
The long-term outlook is less certain.
Since the close of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and a stay-home order in Harris County began on March 11, transit use in the region has dropped to about 40 percent of normal. Even as state officials began reopening many Texas businesses in early May, bus and rail use has continued to remain half or less of typical work days.
“Downtown is still relatively empty compared to what we have all come to expect,” Luhrsen said, noting that surveys of central business district offices by the Houston Downtown Management District found only about 10 percent of workers have returned.
Exacerbating the return is Houston’s reliance on the oil and gas industry, which remains mired in a downturn that means fewer people reporting to offices.
That uncertainty and industry furloughs, combined with a tough spring for food service workers and no students reporting to campuses, are expected to result in steep losses for Metro’s local bus service, rail lines that service the University of Houston and Texas Southern University, as well as commuter bus routes that connect many suburban dwellers to downtown white-collar jobs.
Park and ride poses the most difficult ridership to predict, Luhrsen said. Local bus and rail service already have started to tick upward, forcing Metro to gradually increase some frequency on routes to maintain buses at half-capacity.
Riders say the service has been a lifeline, but also hard to predict. Tom Waters, 65, said his ride on the 44 Acres Homes and 27 Shepherd bus routes to his private security job in Rice Village sometimes can take a hour longer because of bad connections and limited seats. To maintain distance between riders, Metro has marked off half the seats on buses and operators that have filled their allotted seats are told not to take on additional passengers.
“If one bus passes by and it’s full, it is 30 minutes until the next one comes,” Waters said. “If that happens twice, I might as well walk.”
As demand slowly increases, transit officials plan gradual increases in frequency of service, starting in June when more high-demand routes will move back to 10- or 15-minute intervals between buses from the 15- or 20-minute times now. Red Line light rail also will move from trains scheduled every 12 minutes back to its peak 6-minute intervals between trains.
Other routes, such as the Green and Purple light rail lines, will wait until July or August to resume normal operations. The two train routes, which normally operate with trains every 12 minutes, have been traveling at 18-minute intervals since March.
Riders will return to transit when they are comfortable with the idea and when they feel the need, officials said. Even as some automobile traffic has returned on area streets and freeways, many commuters who had relied on the bus are choosing to drive instead.
Luhrsen said when drivers “grow tired of that particular commute and return, we have to be ready at that time.”
Metro board member Lex Frieden also encouraged transit staff to consider assuring residents about the safety of the system.
“Many people will stop to think, what are the odds of being exposed,” said Frieden, an expert in disability rights and access, who often works with individuals most at risk from the virus.
In areas hit hard by the COVID pandemic, notably New York City, some studies have shown public transit packed with riders helped spread the illness because others were inhaling air fouled with the virus.
According to transit and health officials, no positive COVID diagnosis in the Houston area has been traced to exposure on a bus or train or transit stop, though 25 Metro workers or contractors — 14 of whom had contact with public — have tested positive for the virus.
In Houston, trains and buses typically are far less full than a New York subway and transit use accounts for 3 percent of trips regionally. Fewer people means fewer chances for positive cases to spread.
Metro is following Centers for Disease Control guidelines to limit riders and bus drivers being within six feet and encouraging — but not requiring — riders to wear masks. Frieden said if contact tracing and other data become available, Metro should make it public.
“If we can use the data … we may be able to demonstrate the safety of our system,” Frieden said.
When and if riders return in the next year, Metro will have an additional service to offer them. After more than 18 months of delay, Lambert said Metro’s Silver Line, bus rapid transit along Post Oak, likely will open to riders in mid-August. Large buses will operate the route in bus-only lanes from Metro’s new Northwest Transit Center near Loop 610 and Interstate 10, south along the loop and along Post Oak through Uptown to Westpark Drive.
Facing low ridership for a few months, Metro officials said the hiccup could help them ease the BRT line into service, which they continue to predict will improve transit in the area despite months of delay and harsh criticism from some Post Oak residents and businesses.
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