King County Metro is a microcosm of what’s happening in the world, General Manager Terry White has said.
That’s especially true this year as the agency grapples with budget cuts, employee morale and a safer experience for riders and employees during the coronavirus pandemic.
King County Executive Dow Constantine appointed White, who has served in the agency for 33 years, as the general manager on Dec. 2. White had served as interim general manager since Aug. 1, after the retirement of General Manager Rob Gannon, and he previously served as deputy general manager.
The Seattle Times spoke with White to ask him about his vision for the agency next year and in the years ahead.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What got you into your transit career?
TW: I grew up in a Seattle housing project. Because I had a single mom who had a disability that would not allow her to operate a vehicle, I grew up on Metro. My mom was determined to not let our status or carless situation impact me culturally. We went to zoos; we went to museums; we went to the fairs; we went to church; we shopped. I experienced it all via a bus. I got what Metro does, what it’s about, what mobility means and how it changed my life. I wanted to be a part of that. Fourteen Metro positions later, here I am. I’m proud to be part of a system that moves people and changes their opportunities to thrive.
Q: 2020 was an unprecedented year for everything, including transit. Meanwhile, 2021 is set for a lot of change. With three new Sound Transit light-rail stations coming on board, the passage of the Seattle sales tax to fund transit, delays on a Rapid Ride line and other projects, and the recession, what’s Metro’s plan for bus service?
TW: No significant changes to bus lines. We’re running about 85% of the services that we have. We’ve suspended some services that are of the express-type mode and peak-hour services. About 40% of our riders are still with us. A lot of those folks have no other choice. We believe in a fast and reliable, all day service network. We’re still headed to that place. We’re going to have to monitor how we grow and what types of travel patterns come out of this post-COVID-19 situation.
Q: What are your expectations for how much or how fast ridership will rebound when coronavirus vaccinations become widely available?
TW: We definitely believe ridership will come back. I can’t give you the crystal ball for how quickly. We’re planning for recovery over the next two-year period.
Q: Riders have been told to use Metro for essential trips only. Is there a caseload number that Metro is eyeing before it’s ready to let people get on the bus for nonessential trips?
TW: We’re really monitoring all the data and information that we have available to us. We’re watching our loads, but we’re also listening to the governor and listening to public-health officials.
Q: How is Metro caring for drivers after they deplete the hours Metro has provided for COVID-19 precautions and recovery?
TW: We have various types of paid leave that we’ve made available to operators this year. We’re still working on potentially extending some of that time out into 2021 as well. We’ve provided some personal protective equipment such as gloves, wipes. We’ve installed operator-safety partitions [plexiglass shields] on our fleet. Those will be permanent and part of our fleet going forward. In addition to caring for operators and providing them with various types of masks, we’ve mandated that customers also wear masks.
Q: Transit workers are considered essential workers and may be early in line to receive the coronavirus vaccine. Will Metro require drivers to take the vaccine when it’s available?
TW: We are looking into ensuring that we remain one of the priorities as far as who gets the vaccine first. Our teams are looking into what the proper protocol process will be for whether we’re mandating the use of vaccines.
TW: Mask enforcement is something that the industry is grappling with nationally. This summer, we put out mask dispensers on 102 buses. We’re now up to 340 of our coaches — about 89% — that have them. We’re a microcosm of what’s happening in the region, if not in the world. We’ll continue to explore opportunities to add any other types of protection that we would deem will help our operators. We don’t want our operators involved in the enforcement piece. There are too many ways that a good intention discussion can go wrong.
Q: Would Metro hire security to enforce mask wearing or refuse riders who aren’t wearing masks?
TW: All options in terms of mask wearing and enforcement remain things that we’re looking at, so yes.
Q: Some Metro employees over the summer complained of racism within the agency, including bias within the workplace and lack of action from management on complaints of harassment. What specific actions are you taking to address those concerns?
TW: Some of our past policies were not as transparent as we believe we need to be. There was an issue that occurred this summer, and we were investigating it. We just didn’t publicize that we were. A lot of folks saw that as no action taken. We’re working to update our policies for how we share that an investigation is under way without damaging that investigation. We are working hard to change some of the systemic policies that have been in place, whether that’s hiring, training, educational opportunities. We want to be an anti-racist transit system.
Q: Will Metro ever bring its Access paratransit service in-house, like fixed-route services, instead of using a contractor?
TW: We’re always exploring efficiencies and how to do work. I wouldn’t rule out [bringing Access in house].
Q: Will Metro publish its Equity Impact Review of Access that has been in drafts for more than a year?
TW: Yes. (White could not provide a date for when the Equity Impact Review would be available.)
Q: Will Metro increase service on the water taxi, given the troubles with the West Seattle Bridge?
TW: We are working in partnership with Seattle’s Department of Transportation. That includes the West Seattle Bridge and water-taxi services, as well as mitigating how we get buses in out and out of West Seattle.
Q: Would Metro buy an additional boat?
TW: I wouldn’t rule out a discussion around leasing or purchasing long term. Short term, there may be some ways that we can mitigate and bring in a vessel.
Q: How will Metro balance budget deficits with preserving jobs?
TW: Our priorities remain providing fast, frequent, reliable, all day service. We were going for a more stable, regional funding package early this year before COVID-19 hit. So while we’re focusing on response and recovery, our long-term goal remains the same. We will continue to push for a regional funding package.
Q: Do you support direct state funding for transit?
TW: State funding should play a significant role in how transit functions. They do play a role in it now. We have talked about more prioritization for transportation, especially given what the COVID-19 environment has shown us.