As the coronavirus pandemic decimated transit ridership throughout King County, plenty of Metro buses ran nearly empty.
Not those on Route 7.
The route from downtown to Rainier Beach maintained about half of its usual ridership early in the pandemic.
“It’s frequently full by pandemic standards,” said rider Dorene Cornwell. Some passengers are on their way to jobs that can’t be done from home, Cornwell said.
The 7 was essential before the outbreak, too. Riders boarded the route 11,000 times a day, making it one of Metro’s five busiest bus lines. But with crowded and late buses, Metro labeled the route as in need of improvements and planned to convert it to a RapidRide line with special stops and signals by 2024.
Now, those plans are on hold.
As part of its latest budget proposal, Metro intends to pause work on the RapidRide R line to Rainier Valley and several other projects in the wake of financial losses from the pandemic.
Transit agencies across the country have strained under the financial pressure of the coronavirus downturn, reduced tax revenues and lower ridership. The cuts at Metro underscore the reversal of fortune for a transit system that in recent years saw growing ridership and at times couldn’t hire drivers fast enough or find enough space in its maintenance bases to meet demands for more service.
Over three years, Metro anticipates bringing in about $301 million less than originally expected in sales taxes and $288 million less in fares, according to agency estimates. Metro leaders are also assuming Seattle voters do not renew an expiring tax for bus service on the ballot in November, though city voters have regularly backed transit funding measures.
Metro stopped collecting fares this spring to reduce close contact between drivers and riders at the front of the bus, and said it lost about $5.5 million a month in fare revenue, even with lower ridership.
All told, compared with its pre-pandemic projections, Metro expects a $454 million gap in revenue. That amounts to about 15% of what the agency would spend on operations over three years.
Metro gets more than half of its revenues from sales taxes. The federal government provided Metro $244 million in coronavirus aid, but the agency expected to run out of that funding by the end of this year. Metro has also faced pressure from drivers worried about their exposure to the virus and critical of the agency for taking months to install protective measures like barriers between drivers and riders.
Metro has already cut bus service by about 15% from pre-pandemic levels and laid off 200 part-time drivers.
The pandemic budget is not the first setback for the Rainier RapidRide line, which was also promised as part of the troubled Move Seattle levy. City leaders later admitted they could not deliver all the projects once promised. Seattle eventually shifted to planning other upgrades for Route 7 as Metro pursued the RapidRide project.
Upgrading routes to RapidRide is a “mixed blessing,” said Cornwell, who is legally blind and relies on public transit. The routes move quicker in part because their stops are farther apart.
During outreach about RapidRide on Rainier last year, members of the public told Metro the area needed faster and better bus service and improved bus stops, but some also worried about losing stops on Route 7. Improvements like bus-only lanes could be made to the 7 without building the RapidRide.
Before the pandemic struck, many people relied on the 7 to get to the Rainier Valley Food Bank, said Executive Director Gloria Hatcher-Mays. The route is “always crowded and it’s always late,” Hatcher-Mays said.
For now, the food bank has shifted to home delivery, but plans to reopen by 2022. When that happens, bus service will once again become a key link to the food bank.
“It’s sad — I don’t know that it’s necessarily devastating — that they aren’t going to do the RapidRide, but I do feel it is harming the wrong people to not have public transit that is as efficient as it is in other communities to serve this community,” Hatcher-Mays said.
In finding projects to cut, Metro considered race and income demographics, other bus routes in the area, funding prospects and other factors, an agency spokesperson said.
Along with the Rainier line, Metro plans to pause work on a RapidRide line between Kirkland and Bellevue, where riders could connect to a new light rail line coming in 2023.
A RapidRide line once expected to reach the Roosevelt neighborhood could be cut short. Metro and the Seattle Department of Transportation are considering shortening that route to end at the new University District light rail station at Northeast 43rd Street instead of the Roosevelt Station on Northeast 65th Street.
Metro will continue work on other planned RapidRide lines to Burien and Madison Valley.
Metro also plans to halt its search for a new bus base. Metro expected to add a new base in South King County as part of a plan to expand its fleet with electric buses. The agency was looking at industrial and commercial land in Kent and Auburn for the new site and expected to spend $480 million to open the base by 2030.
“Metro plans to stay flexible during these uncertain times, and — as demand returns — we will consider reactivating the acquisition process for the south King County base,” the agency said in a blog post.
Metro still plans to expand its base in Tukwila for electric buses.
The budget proposal would also phase in a small reduction of transit police, with five positions vacant by 2023, as the county faces public pressure to address racism and police violence. Metro’s current budget funds about 93 transit police positions, according to a spokesperson.
After a pause in fare collection, buses will again require payment starting this week, though riders won’t get tickets for now as the agency considers changes to its fare enforcement practices. The current fare enforcement system disproportionately affects people of color and people who are homeless.
Metro’s proposed 2021-2022 budget now goes to the Metropolitan King County Council for debate and a vote this fall.