Second House COVID Bill Focuses Transit Aid on Big City Population, Not Transit Use

The $3+ trillion coronavirus response legislation to be considered by the House this week (H.R. 6800, the “HEROES Act”) appropriates $15.75 billion for mass transit providers, in addition to the $25 billion provided by the CARES Act. (5/20/2020 update: H.R. 6800 passed the House on the night of May 15 by a vote of 208 to 199. Text of the bill as amended and passed by the House is here.)  The entirety of the last $25 billion was apportioned via formula, but the new bill proposes that only $11.75 billion of the new money go out via formula – the rest would be doled out by the U.S. Department of Transportation on an agency-by-agency basis upon applications demonstrating the need for more money. The $15 billion is at a 100 percent federal cost share.

(The American Public Transportation Association had requested $23.8 billion, not $15.75 billion, and a coalition of large transit agencies led by the NYC MTA went around APTA and requested $32 billion, but this was one area in an otherwise free-spending bill where House Democrats were feeling relatively parsimonious.)

The funding is “available for the operating expenses of transit agencies related to the response to a coronavirus public health emergency, including, beginning on January 20, 2020, reimbursement for operating costs to maintain service and lost revenue due to the coronavirus public health emergency, including the purchase of personal protective equipment, and paying the administrative leave of operations or contractor personnel due to reductions in service: Provided further, That to the maximum extent possible, funds made available under this heading in this Act and in title XII of division B of the CARES Act (Public Law 116-136) shall be directed to payroll and public transit service, unless the recipient certifies to the Secretary they have not furloughed any employees…”

$11.75 billion in formula funding. The major departure from normal practice in the new House bill is that it limits the $11.75 billion in formula-based aid to “urbanized areas with populations over 3,000,000.” And there are only 14 of those “UZAs”: New York City, Los Angeles-Long-Beach-Anaheim, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, Houston, Washington, Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Phoenix-Mesa, San Francisco-Oakland, and Seattle. (The definition of “urbanized area” in 49 U.S.C. §5302 requires FTA to use the most recent decennial Census, i.e. 2010, for this calculations.)

The 3 million population cutoff appears arbitrary – in the statutory urban grant formula in 49 U.S.C. §5336, there a lot of references to UZAs with at least 200,000 persons or at least 1,000,000 persons, but no population thresholds above that. It seems likely that the 3 million level was specifically chosen to ensure that Speaker Pelosi’s home town of San Francisco (population of the SF-Oakland UZA in 2010: 3,281,212) received another round of transit aid. Protecting the Bay Area, and using a round number with six zeroes at the end, meant that the eligibility list cut off just below #14 Seattle (pop: 3,050,993) and just above #15 San Diego (pop: 2,956,746).

Unfortunately, the population of a metro area doesn’t always correlate with the use of mass transit in that area. And while the San Fran-Oakland area certainly qualifies for more funds based on its residents’ heavy use of mass transit, House Democrats’ decision to base the next round of transit formula funding entirely on population leaves several cities that are heavily transit-dependent out in the cold, while giving more money to larger cities whose residents don’t use transit nearly as often.

The best metric for how dependent an area is on mass transit, relatively speaking, is the number of times the average resident uses mass transit during a given period. We used National Transit Database totals from Appendix B of the 2020 APTA Public Transportation Fact Book and simply divided the number of 2018 unlinked passenger trips (UPTs) on mass transit vehicles by the 2010 Census population for all 41 urbanized areas above 1 million population to get annual transit trips per capita. The following list ranks those 41 urbanized areas in terms of how relatively transit-dependent they are, and shows whether or not each area is among the 14 selected by the new House bill to split $11.75 billion in additional transit aid:

Residents of the Portland, Oregon area (pop: 1,849,898) are six times as reliant on mass transit as are residents of Detroit, on average, but because Detroit has twice the overall population, the Motor City’s transit providers will get around $36 million in formula aid from the new House bill while Portlandia’s transit will get none. Likewise, residents of the Baltimore metro area (pop: 2,203,663) took just over 91 million rides on mass transit in 2018, whereas Dallas-Fort Worth area residents only took 69 million. But the DFW area will get about $193 million in transit formula aid from the House bill, while the Baltimore area, with less than half the DFW’s population, will get none.

In terms of raw numbers of mass transit trips in 2018, ten metro areas that are not eligible for any additional formula funding under the House bill had more passenger trips than Detroit’s 36.1 million (Portland had 110 million trips, San Diego 97 million, Denver 95 million, and Minneapolis-St. Paul 94 million, at the top of that list). But, solely because of the overall population of the metro area, Detroit gets more formula money under the House bill, and the rest of those areas don’t.

The following table shows the 41 U.S. metro areas with a 2010 population over 1 million, their 2018 unlinked transit trips, and the estimated amount of additional formula money each metro area will receive from the House bill under a preliminary estimate from the Federal Transit Administration. (The amount of money reserved for oversight may need to be reduced a bit from the preliminary FTA run, which would spread an additional $54 million or so amongst those 14 largest UZAs, proportionately.) 5/26/2020 update: FTA has indeed released a new projection of HEROES Act money that reduces the oversight set-aside from $113.1 million to $58.8 million and increases each UZA’s funding proportionately. The tables below have been updated with the new numbers.


There is one outlier below the 1 million population mark – Honolulu (or “Urban Honolulu” in the Census list – there is something weird with the UZA definition there) has, per the NTD, a per capita transit trip ratio in 2018 of 80.8 – higher than any other major metro area except NYC, San Fran-Oakland, Boston and the National Capital Area. (Table 3 in the back of the 2020 APTA Fact Book ranks all metro areas by per capita UPT, but there’s no minimum population limit on that list, so it’s full of a lot of small college towns, meaning that the big transit provider is often the university, and the fact that academia is currently closed makes their transit needs right now very different.)

And one large metro area is excluded from the above list – San Juan, Puerto Rico has a population of 2.15 million and is normally eligible for federal transit aid. But San Juan is not that transit-dependent – per capita transit trips in 2018 only averaged 8.8, which is even lower than Riverside-San Bernardino and almost as low as Indianapolis.

The CARES Act enacted six weeks ago (seriously, it has only been six weeks?) gave the 41 largest metro areas $17.4 billion in transit formula aid, spread much more widely, when compared with the estimated $11.6 billion that would be apportioned under that preliminary estimate of the new HEROES Act:

 Comparison of Actual CARES Act Transit Formula Apportionments to Urbanized Areas With Anticipated House of Reps. HEROES Act Formula Funding 
Urbanized Area CARES  HEROES Increase
NYC-Newark $5,437,225,776 $4,997,317,559 +92%
L.A.-Long Beach-Anaheim $1,215,978,439 $731,551,930 +60%
Chicago $1,481,734,139 $1,375,787,676 +93%
Miami $454,725,282 $287,204,468 +63%
Philadelphia $879,074,361 $775,245,973 +88%
Dallas-Ft. Worth-Arlington $318,629,129 $192,925,092 +61%
Houston $258,569,336 $85,805,586 +33%
Washington DC-MD-VA $1,020,220,909 $893,868,696 +88%
Atlanta $370,947,760 $304,028,733 +82%
Boston $883,963,957 $755,298,789 +85%
Detroit $133,892,582 $35,629,636 +27%
Phoenix-Mesa $188,416,721 $75,643,808 +40%
San Francisco-Oakland $822,593,563 $766,178,858 +93%
Seattle $520,621,224 $414,763,197 +80%
San Diego $314,267,559 $0 +0%
Minneapolis-St. Paul $226,499,058 $0 +0%
Tampa-St. Petersburg $91,119,942 $0 +0%
Denver-Aurora $209,393,920 $0 +0%
Baltimore $385,511,664 $0 +0%
St. Louis $151,531,678 $0 +0%
Riverside-San Bernardino $137,566,673 $0 +0%
Las Vegas-Henderson $112,263,863 $0 +0%
Portland $201,925,350 $0 +0%
Cleveland $123,467,325 $0 +0%
San Antonio $93,287,276 $0 +0%
Pittsburgh $162,133,877 $0 +0%
Sacramento $112,136,861 $0 +0%
San Jose $196,849,871 $0 +0%
Cincinnati $57,339,245 $0 +0%
Kansas City $51,271,164 $0 +0%
Orlando $93,372,699 $0 +0%
Indianapolis $44,567,016 $0 +0%
Milwaukee $62,363,348 $0 +0%
Virginia Beach $63,837,553 $0 +0%
Columbus $53,174,170 $0 +0%
Austin $104,057,727 $0 +0%
Charlotte $63,620,890 $0 +0%
Providence $123,999,409 $0 +0%
Jacksonville $42,553,101 $0 +0%
Memphis $35,687,809 $0 +0%
Salt Lake City $112,091,799 $0 +0%
 Total, 41 U.S. UZAs over 1m  $17,412,484,025 $11,691,250,000

USDOT is to issue a NOFO within 30 days of enactment and set an application deadline within 45 days of enactment, and make grants no later than 45 days after the application deadline, and she “shall require grantees to provide estimates of financial need, data on reduced ridership, and a spending plan for funds: Provided further, That when evaluating applications for assistance, the Secretary shall give priority to transit agencies with the largest revenue loss as a percentage of their operating expenses…”

$4 billion in discretionary, need-based aid. In addition to the $11.75 billion in formula-based aid for the 14 biggest metro areas, the House bill also appropriates $4.0 billion “for grants to transit agencies that, as a result of coronavirus, require significant additional assistance to maintain basic transit services…”

The “self-executing” amendment approved by the House Rules Committee on May 14 will, when adopted by the House, make the following changes in eligibility for the $4 billion (the language is below – the language stricken by the amendment is in strikethrough type and the language to be inserted is in italic type): “Provided further , That any recipient or subrecipient of funds under chapter 53 of title 49, United States Code, or an intercity bus service provider that has, between since October 1, 2018 and January 20, 2020, partnered with a recipient or subrecipient in order to meet the requirements of section 5311(f) of such title shall be eligible to directly apply for funds under this paragraph: Provided further , That entities that are not recipients or subrecipients of funds under chapter 53 of title 49 but are eligible for grants under this heading in this Act and have partnered with a recipient or subrecipient in order to meet the requirements of section 5311(f) of such title shall be eligible to receive not more than 18.75 percent of the total funds provided under this paragraph:”

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