Transit agencies in the Puget Sound region will get more than $500 million in federal help to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, but some could still end up asking for more.
The Federal Transit Administration announced this week how it would dole out $25 billion included in the recently passed federal coronavirus relief package. The funding is meant to backfill lost funding for transit systems and help cover extra cleaning costs, as ridership plummets and tax revenues sink.
Still, there are likely to be debates over more aid packages and transit could continue to be among the long list of needs. The American Public Transportation Association has already turned its attention to calling for new infusions of money for new transit projects as a strategy for economic recovery.
“This wasn’t a stimulus, this was a relief package,” said Justin Leighton, executive director of the Washington State Transit Association. Transit systems across Washington could seek more help from the state Legislature or federal government, Leighton said.
The federal funding in the latest aid package can be used for backfilling losses, covering operating costs dating back to Jan. 20 and paying extra cleaning costs — a broader scope than federal funds typically aimed at construction. The money can cover costs such as driver pay, fuel and administrative leave for employees.
The Puget Sound region will get about $538 million, with funding to be distributed to Metro, Sound Transit, Washington State Ferries and some smaller systems including Community Transit and Kitsap Transit.
In total, it’s about triple what the region would get in federal transit funding in a typical year, according to the Puget Sound Regional Council, which will distribute the money. Other cities in Washington will get some help, too, with about $23 million going to Spokane and $9 million to Bellingham. The state will get about $44 million to distribute to transit in rural areas.
King County Metro executives estimate the agency will receive about $248 million, which would cover projected losses in the near term. Metro expects to lose about $145 million in sales tax revenue and $80 million in fares this year, said John Resha, Metro’s assistant general manager for finance and administration.
Metro spends about $1 billion a year on operations, including services it provides for Seattle and Sound Transit.
The federal money will allow Metro to “keep the system operating,” Resha said, though bigger budget questions are on the horizon.
It’s not yet clear, for example, whether ridership will ever fully rebound or if telecommuting will take hold for some companies. Metro stopped collecting fares on March 21 to reduce hand-to-hand interactions on buses, and the agency doesn’t yet know when it will start charging again, Resha said.
“For 2020 alone, we will utilize almost all of the [federal] dollars,” Resha said. “We anticipate the recovery period will not just be a one-year event, but will take a few years.”
Metro has some reserves, including about $260 million in a revenue stabilization account in case of a recession. The agency hasn’t yet tried to tap into that fund because “we are not yet formally in a recession,” Resha said.
Sound Transit has a different financial picture, with some different revenue sources and major construction costs as it expands light rail throughout the region. Both Metro and Sound Transit are heavily reliant on sales taxes, but Sound Transit also collects large federal grants and other taxes like car-tab fees for construction of new light rail lines.
CEO Peter Rogoff, a former FTA administrator, estimated after the Congress passed the federal package in March that Sound Transit would get about $150 million to be used “first and foremost to keep our doors open and run the service.”
But Rogoff urged the federal government to design formulas for coronavirus aid that consider areas of the country where COVID-19 has hit hardest and where transit is heavily reliant on sales taxes.
“We’re very concerned about our ability to meet all the timelines for our major capital projects,” Rogoff said.