The COVID-19 Pandemic’s Impact on Public Transportation Ridership and Revenues across New England

Abstract: In New England and elsewhere, public transportation was among the many sectors immediately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Essential workers and members of the labor force with no teleworking options and no alternate means of transportation continued to rely on public transit following the onset of the pandemic. However, with business closures, event cancellations, and social distancing regulations in effect, ridership dropped sharply, hampering transit systems’ ability to generate revenue. As of June 2021, ridership remained depressed despite the relaxation of restrictions and a general resumption of economic activity, though it is anticipated to grow slowly as workers return to offices in larger numbers. Systems with a greater reliance on fares for revenue saw large budget gaps emerge, and many responded by reducing services. In Massachusetts, MBTA service cuts garnered substantial news coverage, but the ridership declines and their implications extend beyond the large transit systems. This brief explores the trends in ridership and financing of all public transit systems in New England. The continued financial health of public transit systems has been on policy agendas, as evidenced by the substantial sums appropriated in the three COVID-19–related federal stimulus packages and the pending bipartisan infrastructure bill. The appropriations in the three stimulus packages were sufficiently large to fully offset the immediate revenue losses, and—when combined with the funding in the infrastructure bill—they could enable transit systems to make changes that might be necessary to maintain long-term financial viability and entice riders to return to public transit in a post–COVID-19 world. This brief examines information on how each transit agency in New England was funded before the pandemic. It uses long-term trends in ridership, the impact of the pandemic on ridership, and the share of operating expenses covered by revenue generated through ridership to identify areas that may require significant reforms, potentially including funding changes or service modifications, in order to maintain financial viability after the stimulus funds have been exhausted.

Keywords: New England; NEPPC; COVID-19; public transit;

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Bibliographic Information

Provider: Federal Reserve Bank of Boston

Part of Series: New England Public Policy Center Regional Brief

Publication Date: 2021-09-27

Number: 2021-2