Transit Investments: Essential for Workers and Recovery

Transit memo header 02

As Congress considers additional measures to address immediate health risks and economic fall-out from COVID-19, lawmakers are also turning their attention toward policy tools that will help our economy recover over the next several years. Our nation’s transit systems should be a big part of both conversations.

Transit is critical to getting essential workers to the frontlines, so we must ensure services can continue safely even as communities start to reopen. And when it comes to spurring economic activity and job growth, investing in labor-intensive transit projects will be one of the most effective ways to get Americans back to work.

Following up on Third Way’s recommendations for investing in highway infrastructure, these suggestions for transit investments will help America come out stronger on the other side of this crisis:

Keep the trains (and buses) running to get us through the crisis

  • Improve safety guidelines and access to personal protective equipment.
  • Provide additional operating funds in future recovery packages

Put Americans back to work repairing and expanding our transit infrastructure

  • Fund the $99 billion transit maintenance backlog, saving or creating five million jobs and generating tens of billions of dollars in economic returns
  • Provide $7.55 billion for new transit construction projects that can get started and create jobs quickly
  • Provide a 100% federal cost-share for transit stimulus funding, ensuring projects can get funded and create jobs quickly
  • Ensure timely delivery of transit grants to reduce delays and cost overruns

Help transit agencies prepare for the future

  • Increase funding for transit agencies to procure zero-emissions buses and charging infrastructure
  • Provide support for transit agencies to make their systems more resilient
  • Provide grants and other incentives for transit-oriented development

Keep the trains (and buses) running to get us through the crisis

With the ongoing public health crisis, transit is more important than ever. Essential workers including hospital staff, pharmacists, and grocery store employees account for 36% of transit commuters in the U.S.1 That means the people we rely on to treat our illnesses, fill our prescriptions, and keep us fed rely on public transportation to get to work. But our transit agencies are struggling to maintain services due to steep revenue losses, and our transit workers aren’t getting the personal protective equipment (PPE) they need to stay safe while serving their communities.

Improve safety guidelines and access to personal protective equipment

Transit workers are at an elevated risk of infection because they have contact with so many people, particularly healthcare workers who rely on transit, in enclosed spaces like buses. While some transit agencies are well-equipped to keep their workers safe on the job, many are not. Not every transit agency’s buses have protective barriers to separate drivers from passengers, and not every agency has supplied their cleaning staff with hazard suits and other necessary PPE.2 Transit workers are paying the price for these shortcomings: in New York City, for example, transit workers are dying at triple the rate of first responders.3

The CDC has issued COVID-19 guidance for transit agencies and their employees,4 but critics including the agencies themselves say the recommendations came too late and do not fully address the needs of transit workers.5 In light of the ongoing supply shortages, the federal government should coordinate PPE purchases with transit agencies across the country in order to supply transit workers with necessary PPE so they can continue working while staying healthy. We also need more comprehensive guidance from CDC on how to safely equip transit workers and work environments.6 This will help keep transit workers safe, and it will also benefit the entire communities those transit systems serve by slowing the spread of the disease and reducing the risk of having to cut services even more due to worker shortages.

Provide additional funding where needed to keep transit systems running  

In March, as the economy came grinding to a halt and people across the U.S. began sheltering in place, public transit ridership dropped drastically. Nearly half of all funding for transit systems comes from fare revenues and local government funds,7 and the decrease in ridership and sales tax revenue has forced transit systems to reduce or eliminate services. The Phase 3 stimulus included $25 billion in emergency relief for transit agencies. But depending on how long the crisis continues, it could take as much as $40 billion over a 12-month period to maintain service levels and avoid furloughing workers.8 Our nation’s largest transit agencies in particular will need additional support: while the CARES Act provided enough funding for smaller transit agencies to keep running for 13 to 21 months on average, the 10 largest transit agencies only received five to eight months’ worth of support on average.9

Because essential workers like hospital, grocery store, and pharmacy employees rely on transit, we must ensure that transit systems can provide frequent and reliable service. To do this, Congress should:

  • Continue consulting with transit agencies on how much additional assistance they’ll need to maintain their services;
  • Be prepared to provide additional operating assistance for transit agencies in future stimulus packages; and
  • Ensure any additional funding is available to agencies in both urban and non-urbanized areas and awarded based on need.

Additionally, transit agencies facing extenuating circumstances should have the flexibility to spend a small portion of their emergency operating assistance funds on innovative partnerships to temporarily supplement their service or enable them to shift more capacity to high-need routes or riders.10 This would only apply to emergency relief funds and not to capital investment funds.

Put Americans back to work repairing and expanding our transit infrastructure

The most recent estimates predict that U.S. unemployment could hit 20% this quarter, while GDP could contract as much as 40%.11 Congress must take bold action to put Americans back to work repairing and building out our transportation infrastructure—and we need to target that funding towards the projects that will create the most jobs, most quickly.

We already know that investing in our transit infrastructure creates far more jobs than investing in road expansion. A study of the Recovery Act found that $1 billion in stimulus funds invested in transit projects produced almost twice as many job-hours as the same amount of money invested in highway projects.12 Additionally, public transportation investments created 31% more jobs per dollar than new construction of roads and bridges. Every $1 billion invested in public transit creates more than 50,000 jobs, as well as economic returns of $3.7 billion over 20 years.13 A recovery package that goes big on transit investment will get money into the economy and create more jobs, in addition to bringing all of the aforementioned benefits of public transportation like reducing emissions and increasing economic opportunities for low-income communities.

Fully fund our transit maintenance backlog

Unlike federal-aid highway funding, federal transit funding is primarily spent on maintenance.14 Even so, the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) estimates that there’s a $99 billion backlog of transit maintenance projects.15 In order to maximize job creation, Congress should provide enough funding for transit maintenance to fully tackle the backlog. This would create or save nearly five million jobs and generate tens of billions of dollars in economic returns over the next decade.

Transit repair and maintenance projects get money out the door faster and create jobs more quickly than new construction projects, because they don’t require spending as much money or time on planning, permitting, or property acquisition. Additionally, repair projects get done a lot faster, often being completed within one construction season while new construction projects take an average of seven years to pay out fully. Finally, preventive maintenance saves us money in the long-run by avoiding the need for reconstruction later, which can cost four to 14 times as much.16

Provide additional funding for new transit construction

While repair and maintenance projects create the most jobs, new transit construction will also save or create construction or manufacturing jobs while providing new transit services for communities. Congress has only authorized $2.6 billion per year for the Capital Investment Grant (CIG) Program, the primary source of federal funding for transit expansion projects, but there are far more projects going through the approval process than that amount could fund.17

Congress should provide an additional $4.95 billion for a total of $7.55 billion18 for the CIG program so that the projects that have already been approved or are likely to be approved within the next few years can move forward, creating construction jobs quickly. Congress should also consider establishing additional funds—either by expanding existing formula programs or creating a new discretionary grant program—for new projects that are not as far along toward construction, prioritizing projects that would improve access to transit for low-income people.19

Raise the federal cost-share for FTA grants

Just as we did in the Recovery Act, Congress should provide a 100% federal cost-share for transit projects in any upcoming stimulus package. This will help alleviate the financial burden on cities and states that are struggling with reduced income and sales tax revenue, ensuring these projects can move into construction and create jobs as quickly as possible.

Longer term, Congress should raise the federal share on transit projects to match the federal share for highway projects. Highway projects have long benefited from a higher federal cost-share than transit projects, and this has resulted in cities and states prioritizing road construction over transit expansion.20 Achieving equity between transit and highway projects will help reorient federal spending toward public transportation while ensuring transit projects get funded more quickly.

Ensure timely delivery of transit grants

Under the Trump Administration, USDOT has been slow to release CIG funds, holding up transit construction and expansion projects without explanation. This has left communities on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in project delay costs, leaves construction workers without the jobs they were expecting to have, and can even jeopardize a project entirely.21 Democrats and Republicans have recently begun to shine a light on this issue.2223

To ensure funding increases get to transit agencies in a timely fashion, additional oversight and transparency will be needed. Congress should require FTA and the Government Accountability Office to provide regular reports on project status, the cause of any delays, and how these delays increase the cost of transit projects to local communities. Congress should also set deadlines for FTA to sign a grant agreement after announcing an allocation.24

Help transit agencies prepare for the future

As we rebuild and expand our public transportation infrastructure, it’s not enough to do things the same way we’ve always done them: we need to make sure we’re building a system that will make us stronger in the future. This means reducing emissions from bus transportation, making transit systems more resilient to climate change and severe weather, and ensuring our communities have the density to support transit and reduce emissions from cars.

Increase funding for transit agencies to procure zero-emissions buses and charging infrastructure

The transportation sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions,25 and decarbonizing our transportation network is crucial for avoiding the worst consequences of climate change. Public transit already plays an important role in responding to climate change by giving people an alternative to driving, but we can go further by transitioning transit fleets to zero-emission buses. There are about 650 electric buses on the road today,26 or roughly 1% of total public buses currently in use.27 While that number is always growing, it’s not growing quickly enough. Funding should be provided to help transit agencies procure zero-emission buses, as proposed in the House’s Moving Forward Framework.28

Increasing funding for FTA’s Low- and No-Emission Vehicle Program will help more transit agencies procure electric and other zero-emission buses, in addition to the infrastructure necessary to keep them running. Adding $520 million to this program would be enough to double the number of electric buses on the road along with accompanying charging infrastructure.29 Federal assistance should also be made available for workforce training to help transit agencies maintain the new fleets.

Help transit agencies make their systems more resilient

Climate change is causing more frequent and extreme weather events, which are taking a toll on the country’s transit operations.30 Hurricane Sandy, for example, shut down the New York City subway system for days because of extensive flooding, and it took over two weeks for full service to resume.31 Following Sandy, FTA made $3.6 billion available to help public transportation systems in the Northeast become more resilient.32

This piecemeal approach to resiliency is leaving our transit systems vulnerable and wasting money in the process. We need to ensure that any additional funding for transit agencies is spent responsibly and our infrastructure is being built to last. Congress should direct FTA to develop resiliency criteria and best practices for heavy-rail and light-rail systems, bus depots, and other critical public transportation infrastructure; ensure that transit agencies seeking federal funding are including resiliency measures where needed in their plans; and provide technical assistance to help agencies incorporate resilience into their transit asset management plans.33

Provide grants and other incentives for transit-oriented development (TOD)

Car trips are responsible for nearly 60% of greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, which is the highest-emitting sector of the US economy.34 In order to reduce passenger vehicle emissions, we should enact policies that incentivize building housing and businesses near transit and with density in mind. However, many local governments have adopted zoning laws that discourage housing density, leading to longer car trips, lower quality of life, and more emissions.

Congress should provide grants and other incentives to local governments that upgrade their zoning laws to encourage dense housing near public transportation. This will help communities invest in affordable housing, maximize access to jobs and services, and prevent emissions by developing walkable communities and ensuring the density to support transit. Some of the funding for these local efforts can come from existing, underutilized programs.35 For example, Congress has authorized $35 billion in loan authority for the Railroad Rehabilitation and Investment Financing (RRIF) program, but railroads have left $28 billion of that on the table.36 The FAST Act temporarily allowed TOD projects near passenger rail stations to apply for RRIF financing, but this provision sunset in December 2019.37 Congress should extend this provision permanently and go further by expanding eligibility to include TOD projects near rail transit and bus rapid transit stations, as well.


We need to take bold action to address the ongoing economic crisis. Investing in our transportation infrastructure—and particularly in transit—is key to putting Americans back to work and jump-starting our economy again. This means providing any additional assistance needed to keep transit systems operating during the crisis, providing increased funding to put Americans back to work repairing and expanding our transit infrastructure, and helping transit agencies prepare for the future by making their infrastructure more resilient and reducing emissions. This set of policies will help create millions of jobs, provide Americans with more economic opportunity and better quality of life, and put us on a path towards a more sustainable transportation network.


  1. “Transit Is Essential: 2.8 Million U.S. Essential Workers Ride Transit to Their Jobs.” TransitCenter, 24 Mar. 2020, Accessed Apr. 23, 2020.

  2. Bliss, Laura, “Hit Hard by Covid-19, Transit Workers Call for Shutdowns.” CityLab, 13 Apr. 2020, Accessed Apr. 23, 2020.

  3. Guse, Clayton, “MTA Workers Dying from Coronavirus at Triple the Rate of Agencies that Employ NYC First Responders.” New York Daily News, 8 Apr. 2020, Accessed Apr. 23, 2020.

  4. CDC’s guidance includes specific recommendations for bus transit workers, transit maintenance workers, and transit station workers. See: “Resources for Businesses and Employers.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020, Accessed Apr. 27, 2020.

  5. Guse, Clayton, “MTA Chairman Blames CDC as Coronavirus Kills 83 Transit Employees.” New York Daily News, 22 Apr. 2020, Accessed Apr. 24, 2020.

  6. TransitCenter coordinated a letter signed by dozens of unions and other organizations which requested specific standards of PPE provision for transit workers based on consultation with occupational health and safety experts. See: “White House PPE Letter.” TransitCenter, 22 Apr. 2020, pages 2-3, Accessed Apr. 27, 2020.

  7. “2019 Public Transportation Factbook.” American Public Transportation Association, April 2019, Page 23, Accessed Apr. 2, 2020.

  8. “Estimated Financial Impact of COVID-19 on U.S. Transit Agencies: $26-$40 Billion Annually.” TransitCenter, 20 Mar. 2020, Accessed Apr. 27, 2020.

  9. “CARES Act Funding Will Last Half as Long for Large U.S. Transit Regions Compared to Other Areas.” TransitCenter, 23 Apr, 2020, Accessed May 4, 2020.

  10. Hanks, Douglas, “A Transit System in Crisis, Miami-Dade Buying Uber, Lyft Rides on Overinght Bus Routes.” Miami Herald, 7 Apr. 2020, Accessed May 5, 2020.

  11. Klebnikov, Sergei, “JPMorgan Forecasts 20% Unemployment and 40% Hit to Second-Quarter GDP.” Forbes, 10 Apr. 2020, Accessed Apr. 22, 2020.

  12. “Recent Lessons from the Stimulus: Transportation Funding and Job Creation,” Smart Growth America, Feb. 2011, Page 2, Accessed Apr.. 20, 2020.

  13. “Emergency Stabilization & Economic Recovery Recommendations.” Smart Growth America, April 2020, Accessed Apr. 22, 2020.

  14. “Make Public Transit a Priority.” Transportation For America, Page 1, Accessed Apr. 21, 2020.

  15. “Emergency Stabilization & Economic Recovery Recommendations.” Smart Growth America, April 2020, Page 6, Accessed Apr. 22, 2020.

  16. “Recent Lessons from the Stimulus: Transportation Funding and Job Creation,” Smart Growth America, Feb. 2011, Page 2, Accessed Apr. 20, 2020.

  17. “Emergency Stabilization & Economic Recovery Recommendations.” Smart Growth America, April 2020, Page 6, Accessed Apr. 22, 2020.

  18. This includes $945 million for the 10 projects that have existing CIG construction grant agreements with the FTA, in addition to $5.31 billion for New Starts and Core Capacity projects that are in the engineering phase and $1.29 billion for Small Starts projects that are in the development phase and have an overall project rating of Medium or higher (the threshold for receiving CIG funding). For a list of these projects, see: “Annual Report on Funding Recommendations: Fiscal Year 2021 Capital Investment Grants Program and Expedited Project Delivery Pilot Program.” Federal Transit Administration, Feb. 2020, Accessed May 4, 2020.

  19. “Emergency Stabilization & Economic Recovery Recommendations.” Smart Growth America, April 2020, Accessed Apr. 22, 2020.

  20. “Make Public Transit a Priority.” Transportation For America, Page 3, Accessed Apr. 21, 2020.

  21. “Transit: How USDOT is Slow Walking Transit Grants & Why it Matters.” Transportation For America, Accessed Apr. 21, 2020.

  22. “New Committee Analysis of Capital Investment Grant Program Shows Project Approval Time More Than Doubled Under Trump Administration, Costing Transit Agencies Hundreds of Millions of Dollars.” House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, 16 Jul. 2019, Accessed Apr. 27, 2020.

  23. “Moving Forward Framework.” House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, 29 Jan. 2020, Page 5, Accessed Apr. 23, 2020.

  24. Many of these recommendations have been adopted from Transportation for America’s recommendations for improving the CIG program. See: “Make Public Transit a Priority.” Transportation For America, Pages 3-4, Accessed Apr. 21, 2020.

  25. “Fast Facts on Transportation Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Accessed Apr. 24, 2020.

  26. Tigue, Kristoffer, “U.S. Electric Bus Demand Outpaces Production as Cities Add to Their Fleets.” Inside Climate News, 14 Nov. 2019, Accessed Apr. 22, 2020.

  27. Wagner, I, “Public buses in Use by Technology United States 2017.” Statista, 5 Feb. 2018, Accessed Apr. 22, 2020.

  28. “Moving Forward Framework.” House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, 29 Jan. 2020, Page 5, Accessed Apr. 23, 2020.

  29. While estimates for EV buses vary, they seem to average out to about $750,000 per bus plus an additional $50,000 per charger. We are thus estimating that procuring one EV bus plus the necessary charging infrastructure would cost about $800,000 for the purposes of this paper.

  30. “Disaster Resilience & Transit Asset Management.” Federal Transit Administration, 13 Jul. 2016, Page 17, Accessed Apr. 21, 2020.

  31. Rauh, Grace, “City Earmarks $500 Million to Fix Storm-Damaged Schools, Hospitals.” NY1, 12 Nov. 2012, Accessed Apr. 21, 2020.

  32. “Transportation Secretary Foxx Announces Nearly $3.6 Billion to Make Transit Systems More Resilient in New York, New Jersey, and Beyond.” Press Release, Federal Transit Administration, 22 Sep. 2014, Accessed Apr. 21, 2020.

  33. There are many ways to incorporate resiliency into asset management plans. Some examples include conducting benefit-cost analysis of resilience measures and prioritizing resilience improvements as part of maintenance and replacement projects. See: “Disaster Resilience & Transit Asset Management.” Federal Transit Administration, 13 Jul. 2016, Pages 22-26, Accessed Apr. 21, 2020.  

  34. “Fast Facts on Transportation Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Accessed Apr. 24, 2020.

  35. “Emergency Stabilization & Economic Recovery Recommendations.” Smart Growth America, April 2020, Page 8, Accessed Apr. 22, 2020.

  36. Peterman, David Randall, “The Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) Program.” Congressional Research Service, 31 Jan. 2018, Page 1, Accessed Apr. 21, 2020.

  37. Hedlund, Karen, “TOD: TIFIA and RRIF.” Presented to SCORT on 4 Oct. 2016, Accessed May 5, 2020.


Get updates whenever new content is added. We’ll never share your email with anyone.