BART ridership levels an issue as emergency funding set to run out in a few years

Melanie Woodrow Image
Friday, September 9, 2022
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BART ridership hasn't recovered to pre-pandemic levels. While federal financial emergency funding is keeping it afloat, funds will run out in a few years. We explain what this means.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- While BART has weathered its fair share of challenges, it may not have faced any greater challenge than it does right now. The COVID-19 pandemic made working from home a permanent reality and commuting not necessary. BART ridership dropped dramatically and years later it still has not recovered. Federal financial emergency funding is keeping the transit afloat. But in a few years, those funds will run out. We dove deep into the data and explain what that means for the future.

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Two years into the pandemic, BART ridership is only at 38% of pre-pandemic levels, according to BART spokesperson Jim Allison.

"Clearly the weekday ridership is not recovering as quickly as we would like," he said.

According to Allison, weekend ridership is recovering a bit more quickly at 50 to 60% of pre-pandemic levels, but he says it's still not enough to sustain the budget.

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The ABC7 News Data Team analyzed BART data from before the pandemic in January of 2019 through July of 2022.

Total ridership drastically decreased with total station exits dropping from more than 10 million in July of 2019 to more than 1 million in July of 2020. In July of 2022 total station exits had only rebounded to more than 3 million.

Woodrow: "Is BART ever going to get back to those numbers that it saw pre-pandemic?"

Allison: "Well certainly the remote work model has really changed a lot of the dynamics for us, the biggest factor in our ridership is office occupancy."

Prior to the pandemic, in July of 2019, Embarcadero and Montgomery Street were the two stations with the largest number of exits. In July of 2022 that was still true, however the total station exits were significantly lower at each.

Embarcadero total station exits were approximately 71% lower and Montgomery Street total station exits were approximately 75% lower.

"Embarcadero and Montgomery Street heavily relied on people who worked in the financial district," said Allison.

Allison says BART needs to work on attracting those riders when they are commuting to the office.

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The transit system surveyed customers. The number one reason for decreased ridership according to Allison is working from home. The number two reason which is offered much less frequently is fear of COVID-19 exposure.

Allison says BART is safer than ever, with filters on trains and more uniformed safety staff.

Still, rider projections remain bleak.

"We're not really expecting to see full ridership recovery within the near time frame," said Allison.

He says maybe only 50 to 60% of pre-pandemic levels by July of 2024.

Woodrow: "What does that mean for BART's bottom line financially."

Allison: "The federal financial emergency funding that we're getting is keeping us afloat. Those funds have been a lifeline for us but the projections are that we would begin running a deficit in January of 2026."

By law, Allison says BART's budget needs to be balanced; the transit system can't run a deficit and 2025 seems to be the end of the track.

"We're just going to have to readjust the budget as we get closer to the end of that fiscal runway," said Allison.

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Along with those adjustments, campaigns to encourage seasoned riders to return and new ones to give BART a try.

BART is currently offering 50% off the entire month of September in celebration of its 50th anniversary.

Take a look at all our coverage of BART's 50th anniversary, as well as the latest stories and videos on the transit system.

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