Before the coronavirus pandemic, King County Metro was defying a trend.
As fewer people rode buses in cities all over America, riders were flocking to board here. Metro couldn’t hire and train drivers fast enough and didn’t have enough space at its maintenance bases to keep up with demand.
All that has changed.
The coronavirus outbreak has decimated ridership, kept some drivers and other employees at home sick or worried about exposure and pushed the agency into crisis-planning mode. Across the Puget Sound region, the same story is playing out at agency after agency.
Beyond the immediate health crisis, the pandemic threatens to undo years of transit growth, undermine public confidence in taking crowded buses and plunge local transit systems into a financial setback worse than the Great Recession in the late 2000s.
“I absolutely see disaster on the horizon,” said Carla Saulter, a transit rider and advocate who was part of a group after the recession that considered which bus routes should be prioritized during service cuts or expansions.
As businesses remain closed and people stay at home, sales taxes — one of the primary funding sources for transit here — are expected to take a big hit. Fares are not being collected and ridership has plummeted. Meanwhile, extra cleaning adds unexpected costs.
As some major employers signal work-from-home policies will last even as the economy begins to reopen, it appears increasingly likely these challenges will reverberate for years, rather than months. And even when more people return to work and other travel, a more existential question remains: Will they want to ride a once-crowded bus or train to get there?
“We’ve never had a situation where everyone in authority told the public to avoid public transit,” said Jarrett Walker, an international transit planner based in Portland.
“We’re basically training the entire public to view public transit as dangerous,” Walker said. “That’s going to take awhile to come back from.”
‘We are going to bleed far more than $166 million’
As much of the economy shuttered and transit agencies began to worry about lost funding, some help arrived last month, thanks to a federal aid package. Still, experts say it almost certainly won’t be enough.
Sound Transit will receive $166 million in federal funds, which represents about 45% of the agency’s annual operating budget but less than 2% of what the agency projects it would lose if the upcoming downturn is similar to the Great Recession.
“In an economic catastrophe of this magnitude, we are going to bleed far more than $166 million in revenue — and we probably already have,” Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff said.
Agencies are in the dark about exact financial losses because of a lag in tax revenue reporting, but can make projections.
Sound Transit has started the process of rewriting its plans for new light-rail lines promised in multibillion-dollar voter-approved measures, part of the largest transit expansion in the country, but specifics won’t take shape until later this year.
Along with sales-tax losses, Sound Transit projects possible losses in the car-tab taxes. More than half of that revenue comes from newer vehicles, so a decline in car purchasing could hurt revenues, said Chief Financial Officer Tracy Butler.
If agencies’ credit ratings are downgraded, borrowing could become more expensive. Supply chains could become a problem, too, depending on how quickly other construction resumes and production of materials such as cement and steel ramps back up, Rogoff said.
Metro will receive about $244 million in federal aid, shy of its projected losses of $185 million in sales-tax revenue and $80 million in farebox revenue this year. Some of that funding will cover extra costs this year and next, including employee leave, overtime and protective equipment.
Metro will consider service reductions, delays to new RapidRide lines and other ideas, said John Resha, Metro’s assistant general manager for finance and administration.
“The curve of getting back to growth [in ridership] or even back where we were before may take us years rather than months,” Resha said.
The temporary cuts Metro has already undertaken in response to the pandemic have saved money on fuel, but drivers are still on the payroll and cleaning has added new costs. “Everything is on the table” to save money, though Metro would approach fare increases with caution, Resha said.
“We’re going to be coming out of a recession with the highest unemployment we have ever seen,” he said, “making that question of the affordability of mobility a critical trade-off.”
Smaller agencies will be hit, too
Kitsap Transit already expects a reduced shipyard workforce and difficulty receiving metal and other supplies will delay delivery of new boats needed for the Southworth Fast Ferry. Between revenue losses and higher costs to respond to COVID-19, the agency expects a net decline in operating revenue between 17% and 34%.
At Pierce Transit, years of work rebuilding service from deep recession-era cuts will begin to be eroded. After increasing service about 19% since 2015, Pierce Transit expects to reduce service by 12% this fall.
“We feel like our ridership will come back,” said CEO Sue Dreier. “We won’t be able to serve them as well as we did before.”
Pierce Transit has already laid off about 10 drivers in training and three staff whose work was related to fare collection since the agency is not collecting fares. Nearly 30 administrative employees are on furloughs and additional furloughs and layoffs will be announced soon, an agency spokeswoman said. Pierce Transit hasn’t considered a fare increase yet, “however, it will be on the table,” Dreier said.
Federal help plus reserves should help Metro weather losses in the short term, said King County Executive Dow Constantine.
Metro projects like a new maintenance base, stops and shelters could be at risk first, but “the crystal ball is so foggy,” Metropolitan King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci said.
“It’s very early days to think about, ‘what does a bus system look like a year from now or two years from now?’ ” she said. “I think five years from now it probably looks very similar to what we have today.”
When buses come back, will anyone want to ride?
In a way, Saulter, the transit rider and advocate, has been here before. As Metro dealt with the fallout of the Great Recession, she sat on a task force to help craft how bus service should be prioritized during cuts or expansions. The process of reducing service is messy and politically fraught. Ultimately, any cut is painful for the people who ride that route. Transit agencies will face those same hard choices this year.
In other ways, the challenges to come are unlike anything in recent memory.
“I’m not sure how people are going to feel about transit in the long term,” Saulter said. “It’s like all the things that people do together are all of a sudden scary and dangerous in the minds of a lot of us.”
Saulter, who lives in the Central District and does not own a car, worries about how long warnings against riding transit might last and whether her regular routes will be reduced.
“If there’s a long time where we’re not supposed to ride transit, I really don’t know what I’m going to do. I have a family and we take the bus everywhere,” she said. “I feel very vulnerable right now. What if someone in my family gets sick and we need care?”
Transit agencies should prepare for a gradual, not sudden, return of riders, said Walker, the transit planner. Routes designed to shuttle workers at peak hours from suburbs to downtown Seattle may be the slowest to rebound. Meanwhile, people who are “essential to our survival” like grocery store staff and health-care workers will continue to need transit as agencies face financial pressures to cut service or find new funding, Walker said.
“The most affluent peak commuter is not going to come back in great numbers for a while,” Walker said. That can have political implications when the time comes to ask voters to fund transit.
“To what extent is the more affluent peak commuter going to stop caring about transit because they’re not using it?” Walker said. “That is the really scary part.”
Extra service in Seattle — about a tenth of Metro’s overall service — is funded by a tax measure set to expire at the end of this year and it remains to be seen whether local politicians will opt to put a renewal on the November ballot amid the economic downturn. A countywide proposal for bus funding was already scrapped when the pandemic hit.
Metro data has shown that ridership drops amid the pandemic have been less severe in lower-income areas of King County, pointing to reliance on transit in those areas.
“We should absolutely work that into our planning, making sure we serve those locations as best we can,” Balducci said.
As businesses reopen, former bus riders who own cars may be attracted to driving for safety and low gas prices, Rogoff said. At the same time, some people in a financial bind may give up cars to save money.
“That points to greater demand for service, not less,” he said.
Enticing riders back onto buses and trains will likely require costly measures agencies haven’t had to use before, like added cleaning and extra buses to limit crowding.
A glimpse into the future can already be seen in what Pierce Transit’s Dreier called “shadow buses.” Even with low ridership, an extra bus is needed on some routes to allow riders to stay distant from each other and from the driver.
Metro has promised similar extra buses on some routes. At Pierce Transit, leaders are now penciling out how much it would cost to keep those extra buses going for perhaps two, four or six more months.
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