The COVID-19 pandemic had a profound effect on public transportation in Santa Clara County. Ridership and sales tax revenue plummeted. A ballot measure proposing a one-cent sales tax for transportation was put on pause. As someone who believes in public transit, it was hard to watch everything fall apart.
Like many people, my school and work closed during the early days of COVID, so I was stuck at home worrying about the pandemic and if everyone would be okay. At first, I was hopeful everything would be back to normal in a few weeks, but that didn’t end up being the case.
As time progressed, many transit agencies temporarily cut service. In Santa Clara County, VTA was essentially running a Sunday schedule or about 58% of pre-pandemic service. This made taking transit a challenge because of the limited hours and lack of frequency, but since I like to put a positive spin on things, I will say the buses were never faster than in those early days when there were almost no cars on the roads.
At one point, VTA faced up to a 30% cut in service. I didn’t want that to happen, so I got to work and tried to simultaneously find solutions and mobilize the public against the cuts. I talked to experts, current and former VTA board members and anyone who knew more than me that was willing to talk. Math has never been my strong suit, but I learned more about finance during that period than I have in my entire life.
With the help of some board members, experts and residents, we were able to identify a potential solution and an advocacy plan centered on the stories of residents and riders. It was inspiring to watch people tell their stories and even more inspiring to get support from board members.
Thankfully through advocacy, support from the board, luck and most importantly federal stimulus funding, all transit cuts were prevented without the need for risky solutions. While the federal relief funding will not be enough to keep things running forever, it gives agencies more time to identify new revenue sources.
VTA became the first major bus operator in the Bay Area to commit to full-service restoration in 2021 and restored about 90% of pre-pandemic service on Oct. 11. That day didn’t get much attention, and few people even know it happened, but it’s a day I’ll never forget. I was so excited that I woke up at 4 a.m. and traveled around the county for a few hours before work to experience the service I had missed for over a year.
Since then, ridership has started to come back. By the end of 2021, ridership was up to about 50% of pre-pandemic levels, and is now over 60% recovered—a significant comeback from its lowest point at about 25%.
As a rider, I’ve seen it all. I never stopped riding during the pandemic. Even though my trips were less frequent, I still needed transit to access essential services like doctors and eventually my COVID vaccine, which I was able to get at Levi’s Stadium with the help of VTA buses and light rail. As things have opened up, I’ve started to take public transit to all of the things I used to do, and I’ve seen others do the same. It’s been truly incredible to see transit come back to life again.
Critics have continued to say negative things about VTA throughout the pandemic. Unfortunately, the negativity has overshadowed most of the positive moments and milestones. As a rider, I could not be more thankful for where we are today.
As service recovery and ridership numbers continue to climb, I’m hopeful Santa Clara County transit can come out of the pandemic stronger than before and thrive in the future.
San José Spotlight columnist Monica Mallon is a transit advocate and rider in Santa Clara County, and founder of Turnout4Transit. Her columns appear on the first Thursday of every other month. Contact Monica at [email protected] or follow @MonicaMallon on Twitter.
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