Local and state officials have shuttered school buildings and banned large groups in hopes of slowing the new coronavirus outbreak, but the region’s transit systems will operate as usual for now, despite a rapid loss of passengers.

Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday even suggested adding more buses, so riders can sit farther apart. That’s easier said than done, because Seattle-area providers were already struggling to hire enough transit operators and add maintenance bases.

For now, transit officials across the United States are mainly worried about whether employees will catch COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, and stay home sick, so they can’t keep existing buses, trains and boats on the move. Efficiency is a problem to solve later.

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, Kemper Development Co., Madrona Venture Group, NHL Seattle, PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company and Seattle Children’s hospital. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

“We’re really disinclined to take service away from folks, when there’s this much stress going on,” Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff said Wednesday. “If people are still commuting, you have to assume they are essential to the functioning of the workplace, or workers who don’t get the benefit of telecommuting — hospital, health-care workers.”

“Our transit system is a lifeline for many people,” said Claudia Balducci, a Metropolitan King County Council member and bus commuter from Bellevue. “Somewhat like the talk of shutting down schools or other institutions — which are of course places where people congregate and therefore there’s a risk associated with them — we have to think very, very carefully about providing the services that people need.”

Washington State Ferries would reduce service if large numbers of employees call in sick, spokesman Ian Sterling said. 

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“That is not the situation right now,” he said. Ferry ridership is down one-fourth, but trimming trips would isolate people on Puget Sound islands, he said. Even in normal times vessels are susceptible to sudden cancellations, because of Coast Guard regulations that mandate minimum crew sizes to manage emergencies. 

Everett-based Community Transit is drawing contingency plans to possibly reduce trips, mainly long commutes to the University of Washington and downtown Seattle where ridership has dropped, spokesman Martin Munguia said Tuesday in a webcast.

Sound Transit ridership is down 25%, since tech companies instructed most workers to telecommute effective March 4. Metro hasn’t disclosed numbers but anecdotally, certain peak trips that ordinarily carry 75 passengers are down near 20 riders.

Mostly empty vehicles consume resources, a question leaders may have to face soon.

Buses cost an average $154 per hour to operate in King County and consume carbon-emitting fuel at a rate near 4 miles per gallon. Like heavy trucks, they exert 3,000 times the force on city pavement as a sedan.

If money becomes tight, peak trips ought to be trimmed first, said international transit planner Jarrett Walker, based in Portland.

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“If you’re running a commuter bus every 7 minutes at rush hour, cut that to 10 or 12, or whatever the loads support,” he advised on his website. But carving off-hour and weekend service “will reduce the usefulness of the network, and this is the most efficient way to drive riders away,” he wrote.

Off-peak cuts discriminate against lower-income people, experts believe.

“Since people have very little cash reserves, they are a couple paychecks away from not being able to pay their bills,” said Jean-Paul Rodrigue, a professor at Hofstra University in suburban New York, who has written about transportation and pandemics. “That’s a very big risk.”

The national scene is changing quickly, Rodrigue said.

“The big question right now is ‘What type of service? What frequency? Should we be considering closing?’ But we’re not there yet,” he said. “Maybe next week they might be contemplating this situation.”

Sound Transit is closing its downtown light rail stations this weekend anyway (other stations and downtown shuttle buses will operate), as contractors finish a track connection between International District/Chinatown Station and the 2023 Bellevue-Overlake line. On Monday trains revert to normal, six-minute frequency at peak hours.

Inslee exempted transportation from his restriction on gatherings of more than 250 people in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. Some ferries exceed 1,000 passenger capacity. As of Monday, walk-on counts declined to 18,000 statewide compared to 23,600 on Feb. 24. Vehicle counts dipped to 23,000 from 25,000.

Public Health — Seattle & King County, in its 2013 Pandemic Influenza Response Plan, calls for transit to remain operational. If social-distancing measures such as closing schools and day care centers fail, then “the public will be encouraged to use mass transit only for essential travel and only when other means are not available.”

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Health officials advise six-foot separation, to avoid being coughed upon. However, a study of past coronavirus outbreaks found droplets can float for hours or rest on surfaces for days. King County Metro and other transit agencies are conducting nightly disinfectant routines on buses and trains.

Rodrigue said adding buses to increase personal space is unlikely. With dramatically fewer riders, he said, “there is plenty of opportunity for social distancing.”

Seattle Times reporter Heidi Groover and engagement editor Michelle Baruchman contributed to this article.

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