In the future, teams of helpers might meet King County Metro Transit buses at the end of their trips, to coax so-called “non-destinational riders” into accepting social services without a confrontation.
Officials hope the program improves conditions for transit operators, who now make stressful decisions about whether to disturb somebody who might be experiencing a drug overdose, easily enraged or simply seeking warmth in the night. If roving responders persuade someone in crisis to leave, that lessens the need to involve police.
Terry White, Metro’s general manager, described the concept Tuesday during a Metropolitan King County Council committee briefing as including security and social service workers at locations throughout the transit system, or a mobile unit to “support customers in crisis.” Housing, mental health and addiction specialists would participate.
Metro, which used to be the nation’s seventh-busiest public bus agency, is looking to rebuild ridership as pandemic restrictions ease after losing half its 400,000 daily customers. Safety is part of the solution.
Metro will return to community groups for another round of consultation before issuing a final plan and schedule, spokesperson Sean Hawks said after the meeting.
In the near term, White pledged to enlist transit police, who are sheriff’s deputies, to help remove those who stay aboard and refuse services. Policy changes, reacting more quickly to remove repeat violators, will begin “in the next few months,” Hawks said.
White said the pilot project to offer services to troubled passengers will be based on a Safety, Security and Fare Enforcement report, released Tuesday by King County Executive Dow Constantine and Metro after 15 months of outreach. A primary theme of SaFE is reducing racism as a public health hazard, in light of social justice protests and the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers.
The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587 is demanding immediate relief from passengers smoking fentanyl, meth or heroin. Operators filed 398 incident reports involving drugs last year, and other incidents go unreported. They say the problem also deters riders when Metro is looking to rebound from the pandemic.
“I would love to see everyday riders going to the stores, taking their kids for outings, doing these things,” bus driver Erik Christensen told council members. Instead, he said, drugs are smoked daily, and he often loses 15 minutes from his route to have someone removed.
“Ridership is down, people are going to start going back to work. They’re not going to be taking the buses because it is so horrible,” Christensen said. If the county can reduce drugs aboard, more people will ride, he said.
“None of us have agreed to operate shelters or crack houses on wheels. Metro is not the answer to King County’s homeless problem,” Local 587 member Lynn Donovan told council members. She contrasted neglect of transit workers to last summer’s attempted rape of a public employee inside a King County Courthouse restroom, when “no stone was left unturned to clear out the encampment next to the courthouse.” She continued, “As a group, we feel there is no equity for us.”
Metro previously said it’s hiring unarmed Securitas guards, with a goal of 74 deployed by midyear. The agency increased guard presence at Burien and Aurora Village transit centers, White said. White told the council to expect added costs for safety improvements.
Last year there were 48 reported assaults on operators, and 333 “physical disturbances” aboard buses, according to a Metro chart presented Tuesday. Those numbers are fewer than in some years, but White said the only acceptable number of assaults is zero.
Councilmembers pointed to wider problems.
“So many of society’s failures are flowing in through your transit systems. You’re not set up to be hospitals, you’re not set up to be mental health facilities or drug addiction service beds. Those are all things that are upstream from you, and those are things that we as a council, as a state, a country need to grapple with and address,” said Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, whose district extends from Skyway to the University District.
Councilmember Claudia Balducci of Bellevue said without a holistic policy, simply removing people won’t even aid the transit system. “You can throw somebody off your coach, and there’s another coach right behind it.”