Rail Advocates Look to Keep Moving after Covid-19
by Steve Dunham
Rail advocates are looking beyond the Covid-19 pandemic to the future of rail passenger and transit service in the United States.
The “COVID-19 pandemic and generational unemployment,” along with “confronting the need for racial and economic equity, affect the transportation landscape,” wrote Danny Plaugher, executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail, in “Keep Virginia Moving: A Look at Virginia’s Public Transportation Network,” an article in the Virginia Municipal League’s June 2020 Town and City magazine.
Yet “public transportation is more important than ever,” he wrote. “… the work needed to rebuild our economy must include considerations for public transportation so that it is more connected and equitable.”
“In early 2020,” wrote Plaugher, “Virginia was making progress in moving away from a ‘more roads’ model to one that gives every Virginian several options when traveling between destinations. Further, Richmond and Hampton Roads created or expanded their regional authorities to generate an additional $67 million in regional funding for public transit each year.” And two studies “were advanced by the Assembly [Virginia’s legislature],” looking “at an east-west intercity passenger rail corridor connecting Roanoke-Richmond-Hampton Roads” and “at returning the employer tax deduction for providing employees with free transit or ridesharing passes for commuting.… [But] everything changed”—“who was using public transportation, why they were using it, and how to keep them safe” as well as “how those systems could expect to receive funding.… farebox revenue for our public transit systems … has all but dried up as overall travel has decreased, and many systems have gone fare free to reduce contact between transit operators and their riders.”
The decline in ridership and revenue have created a crisis for public transportation agencies that needs to be remedied in the years ahead, and no one knows exactly what’s in store, either in the shape of public transportation or in the government assistance that will be available.
The Rail Passengers Assn. (formerly known as the National Assn. of Railroad Passengers) expects Amtrak to recover and grow; on March 17, 2020, the group urged “Congress to ensure that Amtrak has enough funding to restore pre-COVID-19 levels of service on all existing routes once travel restrictions are lifted, and to bring back any employees who have been furloughed as a result of the reduction of service levels.”
The American Public Transportation Assn. (which includes both rapid transit and commuter rail) seeks, post-Covid 19, measures to improve workforce and rider behavior and influence messaging and branding (balancing the need for technical solutions while addressing the emotional responses of transit patrons and the transit workforce and creating a culture of trust within the industry) and measures involving architecture, ventilation, and air sanitization to promote safe mobility.
As Plaugher noted concerning the study of east-west rail passenger service in Virginia, rail advocates and the public are looking for more rail service, and a “more roads” model can’t address the needs of an aging and possibly less affluent population, not to mention a younger population that is also looking for transportation alternatives.