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NYS Comptroller’s Report Finds Upstate Transit Agencies Saw Revenue Drop During Pandemic

A CDTA bus arrives at Quail Station in Albany.
WAMC Photo by Dave Lucas
A CDTA bus arrives at Quail Station in Albany.

New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has released a report on the fiscal health of Upstate public transportation.

The report looks into four upstate transit systems: Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany. Todd Scheuerman is with the Comptroller's Division of Budget and Policy Analysis.

"We saw that ridership declines for the four Upstate authorities were ranged anywhere from 36% at CDTA, up to a high of 53% at the NFTA in the Buffalo region. And along with the ridership decline, you then see there are also reductions in the charges for services, that is an important revenue stream for all the authorities. Those declines range from 51% in the Syracuse area to 82% in the Rochester area. Locally here in the Capital District, the charge for services decline was at 58%. “

Capital District Transportation Authority CEO Carm Basile says the report is the first comprehensive snapshot he has seen gauging the health of upstate transit systems, measuring the impacts of COVID-19's effect on ridership.

"We were lucky, our ridership is only down about 40%. Other systems are a little bit more. But it has created a situation where we're plugging holes, realigning resources, and trying to anticipate when ridership will come back, if it will all come back."

Basile says going through the pandemic, seeing daily ridership sink from 55,000 to 25,000, forced CDTA to think differently.

"When you see your numbers so dramatically impacted, yet, you hear people saying I need to move around in mobility, I need a connection to my job, to my healthcare provider, to my grocery store, you know, whatever the need is, they still need to get there.”

Scheuerman hopes transit systems will return to their base level of 2019 sooner rather than later.

"But so far, we've not seen that. CDTA for example, has reported that for their fiscal year ending in 2019, they had a total ridership of 1.3 million, in the month of March for that year. It declined in March of 2020 to a million riders, and then by March of ‘21, when you would have hoped to have seen kind of rebound because of the reopening and the availability of vaccines, but their ridership in March of ‘21 was only 879,000. “

Increased revenue from federal aid has kept the transit systems afloat. If ridership continues to languish and does not return to pre-pandemic levels, transit authorities say they'll need additional revenue from other sources to continue to provide services at current levels—or may be faced with limiting services. Democratic Albany County Legislator Sam Fein has proposed making CDTA buses "fare free."

"What this would do is would increase ridership and encourage more people to get back on the bus. And it would also mean that the revenue stream would be more stable, getting funding from the state or the federal government is consistent, rather than having to budget based on fluctuating revenue from fares."

Basile says CDTA's had discussions with Fein but notes the agency already has programs that can help people who don't have the wherewithal to pay bus fare.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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