Mass transit is the lifeblood of big cities, moving millions of people back and forth daily. But the public transit in Southern Nevada has been hit big by the pandemic and the stay-at-home orders caused by it.
Ridership has plunged about 60 percent in Southern Nevada, compared with this time last year, according to the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, forcing the agency to reduce route operations 25 percent and run on a Sunday schedule seven days a week which offers less frequency.
“It’s nothing comparable to the recession,” said Francis Julien, the Deputy Chief Executive Officer at the RTC about the drop in ridership and likely drop in revenue. “Casinos and bars and the other non-essential businesses were still running during the recession.”
But despite all the closures of offices and businesses, those without cars who have to travel—to get groceries or go to the hospital, for example— still have to use public transportation. Critical workers like health care professionals, first responders, and pharmacy and grocery staff still need transportation as well.
“The transit system is the arteries of any city especially in times like this,” Julian said. “There’s a lot of folks that don’t have a car to drive and do simple things like go to the grocery store.”
The most profitable route in Southern Nevada, the Las Vegas Strip corridor, has declined in ridership by 75 percent compared to the same time last year.
That revenue, in turn, helps finance public transit throughout the city.
Public transit does not generate a profit and is subsidized by fares and sales tax revenue. In the last fiscal year RTC collected about $75 million in fares which accounted for 65 percent of RTC’s operating costs, meaning the drop in ridership is likely to hit the public transit budget in a big way.
Sales tax accounted for the second largest portion of revenue for the RTC but with the economic slow down brought on by coronavirus-related shutdowns in Las Vegas the agency is expecting trouble ahead.
“We are still waiting to get good estimates on how much the sales tax will be affected but it will certainly have a big impact on our financial structure,” said Julien.
While the RTC does not yet have an estimate of revenue loss, the offices of U.S. Sens. Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto announced Friday that up to $112 million will be awarded to public transportation in the Las Vegas-Henderson area in operating and equipment expenses to maintain transit services during the pandemic, based on the CARES Act that passed last month. Another $21.7 million will be awarded to the Nevada Department of Transportation.
“During this trying time, it is critical that Nevada’s system for transportation is active and well maintained,” said the senators in a joint statement. “A fully functioning transit system will be critical for providing means of travel for patients seeking care and for front-line health care workers going to and from hospitals and clinics.
The sudden shift in revenue is likely to pour gasoline on the RTC’s already troubled financial situation. Before the coronavirus, several new bus routes and expansions were being planned, say transportation officials, but a lack of funding and plummeting revenue was holding back improvements.
Despite funding troubles, demand for public transit has been growing. Before the reduction in ridership due to COVID-19 and, as recently as February, RTC saw a surge in ridership.
“When that wasn’t true in most of the country it was very much true for us,” said Jacob Simmons, senior principal transit operations planner for the RTC. “Our ridership was up 12.5 percent in February versus the previous February.”
The third week of March, the most recent for which the RTC has data, the agency was averaging about 69,000 riders per weekday, even with a 60 percent decline in ridership due to the coronavirus.
Those number “emphasize how essential our service is to so many of our riders,” Simmons said.
The RTC is the 14th busiest bus transit system in the United States, and saw 64.4 million riders in the 2018-2019 fiscal year, a strong ranking for a small state of a little over 3 million residents.
In fact the routes with the least decline in Southern Nevada have been Las Vegas Boulevard North (44 percent), Maryland Parkway (45 percent), and Boulder Highway down (49 percent), all critical routes with high pedestrian use year round.
Paratransit trip demand has also fallen by 70 percent, with the RTC reducing that service by 50 percent in response. The RTC has found other ways to deploy those paratransit drivers by deploying vehicles to help Three Square with its Senior Hunger Program to deliver groceries to homebound seniors.
Other routes have seen similar sharp drops in ridership like the transit route along Durango and Buffalo, which dropped by 70 percent. Two routes, the Westcliff Airport Express (WAX) and Centennial Express (CX), have been suspended altogether.
Because it gathers people in close proximity public transit poses an added risk for drivers and riders.
Two employee for contractors that provide drivers for RTC buses have already tested positive for COVID-19.
Officials at the RTC said they are taking critical steps to ensure the safety of riders and drivers.
After observing how the virus exploded across China and Europe, the RTC said they placed orders early on and were able to secure the necessary cleaning supplies and masks through their contractors.
“I’m not saying we have the quantity we want but we think we’re going to be able to keep a steady flow of supply,” said Julien.
The RTC is also disinfecting buses with medical grade disinfectant and blocking off seats to push social distancing requirements. Buses are being kept at half capacity while in service.
“We are deploying as many high capacity buses as possible this week even on routes that don’t need them,” Simmons said.