Faced with nine-figure losses in retail sales-tax income, King County Metro Transit says it will run only 85% of its pre-coronavirus service when the agency reshuffles its network in mid-September.
The agency also announced a few summer changes, to begin charging fares again about July 1 and to install shields near the driver’s seat so that front-door boarding and seating may resume. But social distancing, such as a 6-foot separation between riders, will continue indefinitely.
Some trips temporarily cut this spring will be restored June 22, including local buses on Vashon Island.
Metro’s daily ridership has collapsed during the viral outbreak, from 413,000 in May 2019 to 112,000 this past May. General Manager Rob Gannon expects to lose some customers permanently. He emphasized Metro retains a countywide system that can be restored quickly if prosperity returns, or ridership soars.
“We think there are still many pockets of the county that are ready to come back,” Gannon said, unveiling the changes Thursday in a news conference. “We know there are many who will continue to use telecommuting as a preference.”
Full schedules will return this fall for busy routes in low-income or ethnic-minority communities. These include RapidRide A Line on International Boulevard South from Federal Way to SeaTac; Route 150 linking Renton, Kent and Auburn, and Route 21X to Seattle’s High Point and Westwood Village neighborhoods.
Routes like these have tended to keep the most riders, including essential workers and shift workers, despite the epidemic.
Some 68 routes will operate less often where ridership is forecast to nosedive, or because a Seattle car-tab tax to support city trips will expire after 2020. Examples include the C Line in West Seattle, the D Line in Ballard, Route 212 on I-90 from Eastgate to downtown Seattle, and Route 301 from Richmond Beach to Seattle.
Another 50 routes will be suspended, such as the peak-only Route 316 serving Shoreline and North Seattle College and Route 252 serving Kingsgate in Kirkland.
Two of Seattle’s historically busiest routes — the E Line on Aurora Avenue North that formerly served 17,350 riders, and Route 7 on Rainier Avenue South reaching 11,150 riders — will also be trimmed. The cuts will be within peak commute times, when buses arrived as often as every four minutes. Mid-day service should be the same or slightly increase, planners said.
Metro estimates it will lose $280 million in tax collections this year, and a total of $615 million through 2022, requiring not only service cuts but a smaller workforce. Fares cover only 26% of operating costs.
The agency assumes it will lose major funding from the city of Seattle, which collects a voter-approved $60 annual car-tab fee and a 0.1% sales tax, scheduled to expire this year. Mayor Jenny Durkan intended to send voters a ballot measure to renew or replace that money. But the epidemic, followed by protests over the police killing of George Floyd and other Black people nationally, have overwhelmed City Hall, so no tax decisions have been made yet.
“We continue to stay in close contact with the city of Seattle, directly with the mayor’s office and SDOT [Seattle Department of Transportation], to better understand what their intentions are,” said Gannon. “As of today we have not heard with any certainty they are going to move forward, but we know those conversations will continue.”
The plans released Thursday add minimal capacity from West Seattle to downtown, where the highrise bridge that served about 125,000 drivers and transit riders daily was closed in March because of expanding cracks. Buses currently travel on the lower swing bridge. Metro officials offered no plans or money to operate more buses there, but said they’re in frequent talks with the city.
Not only will fewer buses go downtown, but they’re limited now to 18 people each, compared to peak loads up to 80 riders before the coronavirus pandemic.
However, Metro will resume normal commute schedules June 22 for the West Seattle Water Taxi, and minibuses that circulate from the dock to the Admiral, Alki and Alaska Junction neighborhoods. The county is also considering a second boat, said Bill Bryant, service development director.
Metro is assuming telework and fear of contagion will cut demand.
“Conventional wisdom is at some point there will be a vaccine, but it will wait a while,” Bryant said. “West Seattle Bridge ridership is down 90%, and it’s such a commuter heavy market, and really dried up more than our other markets.”