After years of high ridership and pressure to add more service than it could muster, King County Metro this weekend will cut bus service as the agency faces financial uncertainty.
The cuts will amount to 15% of the agency’s overall service before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Metro has already cut some bus routes this year due to the outbreak, so some of the reductions may not feel new to riders. Others are because Metro assumes it will lose car-tab tax revenue due to Initiative 976, Metro says.
The cuts will broadly return bus service to the levels seen in 2015, before a voter-approved sales taxes and car-tab fees boosted bus service in Seattle, said Katie Chalmers, service planning supervisor at Metro.
With the extra service in Seattle, the city says 72% of Seattle households had a 10 minute or shorter walk to transit that would arrive every 10 minutes before the pandemic, almost triple the share of households with that service in 2015.
Metro will largely spare the 10 South King County routes where ridership has stayed strongest through the pandemic but will keep in place cuts to commuter routes where ridership fell as people worked from home. Rush-hour routes, like the 15, 17 and 18 through Ballard and the 217 from Issaquah to downtown Seattle, will be suspended.
Buses will show up less frequently on many Seattle routes, like the 7 to Rainier Beach, the 8 to Capitol Hill and the Central District and several routes through the University District. Metro cites the anticipated loss of car-tab funding for those cuts.
In West Seattle, some routes will be restored, like the 55, 56 and 57. The closure of the West Seattle Bridge has the city looking for a big increase in the number of people who use the bus to get out of West Seattle instead of their cars.
Other changes will come to Renton, Kent and Auburn, where Metro has redesigned several routes promising better night and weekend service for shift workers.
Riders should check Metro’s website at kingcounty.gov/reducedschedule for details.
After steep drops in ridership during stay-home orders this spring, Metro ridership is at about 36% of its pre-pandemic levels.
“We know even at the height of the pandemic, 100,000 times a day someone was getting on board Metro. We want to continue to serve those riders,” Chalmers said.
But Metro faces dual pressures on its budget.
First, Seattle funding is uncertain. The car-tab taxes that fund some of Seattle’s extra service could be wiped out if the state Supreme Court upholds I-976. Statewide voters approved that initiative to cut car-tab taxes last year. At the same time, sales taxes that fund Seattle service will expire at the end of this year unless voters approve a city ballot measure in November. If that doesn’t pass, Metro could make more cuts, Chalmers said.
Second, the coronavirus pandemic has eroded money Metro and other agencies get from sales taxes and fares and left agencies looking for federal help.
Metro expects to lose about $240 million to $265 million this year, representing about a quarter of the $1 billion a year it spends on operations. Federal funding from the CARES Act helped shore up Metro and other agencies, but Metro will run out of that aid by the end of this year.
Metro has not been collecting fares since this spring, in an effort to reduce contact between riders and drivers. Fares will return Oct. 1, though officers will not issue tickets as the county considers possible changes to the fare enforcement system because of its effects on people of color and people experiencing homelessness.
By not collecting fares, Metro says it’s losing about $5.5 million a month, even with lower ridership.
Some riders may hesitate to return to buses as the virus continues to spread. At the same time, Metro drivers fear contracting the virus in their constant exposure with the public. Metro recently began installing mask dispensers and plexiglass shields to separate drivers from riders at the front of the bus.
Metro is running extra buses on eight routes to address crowding, including its busy RapidRide A, D and E lines.
Transit agencies across the country continue to ask for more federal funding. A survey from a national transit lobbying group found more than half of agencies would consider cutting service without more federal funding and 31% could lay off employees.
Changes are also coming to Sound Transit.
Light rail service will improve this weekend, with trains arriving every 8 minutes during peak hours instead of every 20 minutes. Trains will arrive every 15 minutes during non-rush hours on weekdays and every half-hour on weekends. That’s still less frequent than before coronavirus, when trains usually ran every six to 10 minutes during the day and every 10 to 15 minutes on weekends.
At Community Transit in Snohomish County, service will be boosted from current levels but will be about 15% less than before the pandemic.