RTD projects agency will feel economic impacts from COVID-19 for several years
RTD staff said 2021 revenue from fares and sales and use tax is likely to fall by more than a third from previous projections, though some Board members noted at a special study session Tuesday that recent reports indicate the metro economy could come back faster and restore revenue.
If the new 2021 budget estimate proves true, RTD faces a $252 million shortfall unless it massively redesigns its system and staffing and makes major cuts to operations and wages, the new assessment said.
Ridership drops because of COVID-19, and sales and use tax losses because of the economic fallout, have devastated revenue projections, according to the study. RTD staff presented an update on Reimagine RTD efforts that began pre-pandemic as a bold effort to reshape metro transit. Members of Reimagine RTD committees have now turned to a fiscal overhaul of the agency as their main task, in the face of budget projections.
“We collectively need to face this head-on,” said Bruce Abel, RTD special projects director.
Staff and some Board members urged the full Board to approve a nine-day furlough plan for each non-union RTD employee for the rest of 2020, in order to build budget reserves to help counter the expected 2021 deficit. The staff will recommend that the Board exempt the lowest-wage RTD employees from the furloughs in order to reduce economic hardship.
The summary of budget forecasts show a cumulative $1.1 billion loss of sales and use tax revenues through 2026 compared with the previous, pre-pandemic forecast. The total budget shortfall in that time is actually higher, at $1.3 billion, because the Board asked staff not to narrow the gap by taking money from a FasTracks savings account meant to help speed future building projects.
While everyone wants ridership to return, Abel also warned that a quicker rebound to pre-pandemic numbers may be hampered by ongoing COVID-19 social distancing rules. Carrying what had been a typical passenger load now would require three times the equipment and operators because of passenger caps on buses and rail cars and other rules.
“The world has changed, we recognize that; we are changing Reimagine RTD to support this new normal and these new challenges,” said Bill Van Meter, assistant general manager of planning.
Much of RTD’s budget gap for 2020 will be funded by a large grant from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act. RTD leadership said they cannot count on a second round of CARES funding from Congress for 2021, and must plan budget scenarios with little new revenue.
The RTD Board may work with management by next week’s meeting to decide on furloughs this year for salaried employees. Staff said decisions on the 2021 budget and beyond should begin by the end of July as part of the regular budget adjustment process.