For nearly three years, King County Metro has operated under an emergency order — reducing and suspending service to meet the realities of the pandemic.
Next week, that official emergency will expire, but Metro is still not offering the same level of service it did before it was signed. The order’s end forces the question of what bus transit will look like long term and how to meet the needs of people whose lives look different than they did in early 2020.
On Tuesday, members of the Metropolitan King County Council’s Transportation, Economy and Environment Committee voted to approve a “service recovery plan” for Metro, an acknowledgment of the emergency’s cessation and a step toward mapping the future.
The plan does not make reductions permanent, but authorizes their use beyond the emergency’s life. Metro is currently operating 90% of its pre-pandemic bus service, but ridership remains down by half.
“The surface recovery plan stems from the fact that the pandemic emergency has officially ended, but Metro is not yet in a place to fully restore pre-pandemic service,” said Mary Bourguignon, senior legislative analyst for the council.
What, exactly, a post-emergency bus system looks like will take much more deliberation, but the plan lays out a basic framework.
A central premise is that some of the routes that saw reductions should, perhaps, never be restored, a reflection of the fact that some lines served a lifestyle that has been dramatically altered by the pandemic.
“I just think the nature and type of commutes — and I don’t want to call them commutes, but trips — has dramatically and permanently changed,” said Councilmember Rod Dembowski.
Routes centered on peak hour service, providing morning and evening commuters a way to and from work, still struggle the most in a system where ridership has strained to rebound. This shift away from what was once the bread and butter of Metro necessitates thoughtful change, the report concludes.
“The level and types of ridership change suggests a need for Metro to engage with communities and stakeholders to rethink how Metro provides service in some areas and the balance of service provided across the day in many areas,” it says.
The plan also lays the groundwork for restructuring the bus system around major capital projects scheduled to come online in the coming years: light rail to the north, east and south; the RapidRide G line along Madison; and bus rapid transit on I-405.
“With significant expansion of light rail and bus rapid transit planned in the coming years, King County Metro will have an opportunity to reshape the system thoughtfully and with new information learned during the pandemic,” the plan states.
Metro is beset with struggles that go beyond just a change in travel behavior. The agency employs 20% fewer operators than it did in 2019 due to retirements, reassignments and firings. Even to consistently run the amount of service currently scheduled, Metro would need an additional 119 operators, staff said Tuesday.
Combined with pared-down funding coming from Seattle taxpayers, riders are seeing fewer buses and less reliable service than they may have once known.
“I want to be able to deliver the service to the public that we’re telling them we can deliver,” said Dembowski.
Councilmember Claudia Balducci expressed some trepidation about looking at how to build for the future before first stabilizing and guaranteeing the service that Metro currently promises. If buses aren’t arriving when the schedule says they should be, Balducci suggested it may be time to pare that schedule back.
“That’s not what I want to do,” she said. “But I think we should all be open to the risk that that may be what we have to do.”
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