VIA Metropolitan Transit will be eligible to receive more than $90 million in federal funding from the federal coronavirus relief bill.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, that was signed into law last Friday, has $25 billion allocated for the Federal Transit Administration. From that pool, VIA can draw up to $93.3 million for expenses related to the coronavirus pandemic, including wages for workers and protective gear for bus operators.
The money is not intended for new services, said VIA President and CEO Jeff Arndt. “It’s not designed for that. It’s designed to backstop the financial circumstances of transit agencies during this time.”
VIA recently reduced its weekday bus service to Saturday schedules due to decreased ridership. The transit agency also eliminated fees, primarily for social distancing purposes. Without a charge, riders don’t have to wait in line to board, and they don’t interact with the bus operator.
Waiving fees translates to fare revenue loss, however. Arndt estimated that each month without fare revenue, VIA misses out on $2 million. But the loss of sales tax revenue was more troubling, he said.
“Sales tax is 75 percent of our revenue, and it’s probably going to take a hit for some period of time,” he said.
Everyone is working with unknown variables – the length of the pandemic, how deep the impact of the pandemic will be, and how quickly recovery takes – when projecting the future, Arndt said. But if the “peak” in Texas cases occurs in late April or early May as projected, Arndt estimated that VIA would lose around $50 million. That $93 million would be enough to put VIA in a position to rebound after the crisis ended.
“If we did not have $93 million to help us with that, we would be in a situation where we would have to, at some point, reduce workforce and reduce service,” he said.
Like the Houston METRO, VIA is the only transit agency in the San Antonio area and therefore the only agency eligible to apply for the federal funding. Houston received $259 million from the coronavirus relief bill, the Dallas-Fort Worth area received $319 million, and Austin received $104 million, Arndt said. The funding was allocated based on factors such as population, density, and amount of service in the region.
VIA has had only one reported case of COVID-19 in its workforce as of Friday. An employee at the Joint Law Enforcement Center building on North Medina Street tested positive, VIA said Monday. No bus operators have tested positive.
Arndt said VIA continues to give bus operators gloves, hand sanitizer, and wipes, and started issuing face masks for bus operators who wanted them starting Friday.
“Our challenge is to continue providing an essential service to those who need it while maintaining the health and welfare of our staff and of our customers,” he said.