ALBANY — The massive new federal COVID relief plan contains $51.7 million for CDTA and $13.4 million for Albany International Airport.
It’s part of $480 million in funding for upstate airports and transit systems in the American Rescue Plan, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Monday.
Mass transit systems have seen greatly reduced ridership this past year, as remote work and layoffs cut the number of commuters traveling locally while shutdowns and restrictions cut into air travel for pleasure or business.
CDTA and the Albany County Airport Authority both said late Monday that the funding won’t bring any bold new projects and initiatives. Rather, it will keep them afloat until a degree of normalcy returns and their revenue streams start to recover.
“It is great news, but it is stopgap funding,” said Carl Basile, CEO of CDTA. “
I wish I could tell you I had a crystal ball.”
The great unknown for him is the same as for so many other business leaders: What will the new normal look like and when will it arrive?
In pre-COVID times, CDTA relied heavily on commuters (65-70%) and college students (25%) for its fare revenue. With the widespread switch to remote working, there are many fewer commuters. With the imposition of remote learning and campus restrictions, there are fewer college students getting on the bus.
About $20 million of CDTA’s roughly $100 million annual budget comes from passenger fares, and that revenue stream is nearly half-gone, Basile said — ridership is off about 40% at the one year mark in the pandemic, slightly trickling back in recent weeks.
CDTA ridership closely followed COVID infectivity in the community, he noted. As the positivity rate increased, ridership decreased, and vice versa.
Other revenue streams for CDTA also are off, particularly parking at the rail stations.
Basile said the money Schumer secured in the relief package buys CDTA a window of two to three years to evaluate societal and industry changes in the wake of the pandemic and adapt to them.
“Things will never be back to where they were in 2019,” he said. “Some of these changes will become permanent.”
The Airport Authority will use the money for salaries of employees of both the airport and AvPorts, its site manager.
Passenger traffic has been down as much as 85% per month in the past year, cutting parking garage revenue and the per-passenger facility charge that goes to the airport for each flier.
But the old Kaiser Industrial Park belongs to the Airport Authority, and its tenants provide a significant and reliable revenue stream. Passenger traffic at the airport is increasing a bit lately, and some of the concessions in the terminal are reopening part-time.
Business at the coffee shops and eateries had been so bad that the Authority switched the operator to a percentage-based rent rather than a flat fee.
“So things are starting to look better,” Myers said.
The Authority isn’t in immediate financial danger — lessons learned from a previous disruption in aviation were long ago applied.
“When 9/11 hit, we recognized that airports could be severely impacted by a downturn in the economy,” Myers said. So the Airport Authority built up financial reserves, and it is now relying on them. The infusion of federal aid helps with that.
In a prepared statement, authority CEO Philip Calderone said:
“We are most grateful to Senators Schumer and Gillibrand and Congressman Tonko for their ongoing effort to provide financial assistance to safeguard the fiscal integrity of the nation’s airports and the men, women and families that have continued to work to ensure the traveling public’s access to safe and essential air service during the COVID 19 pandemic.”
Schumer in a news release said this latest infusion of money was on top of $144 million he’d secured for upstate airports and $395 million for upstate transit systems in the past year.