Coronavirus causes crisis at local transit agencies

SEATTLE -- The coronavirus pandemic has plunged Puget Sound-area transit agencies into crisis-planning mode, as ridership and revenue has plunged and predictions that people won’t be returning to buses and trains in large numbers anytime soon.

The Seattle Times reports that beyond the immediate health crisis, the pandemic threatens to undo years of transit growth and plunge local transit systems into a financial setback worse than the Great Recession in the late 2000s.

“I absolutely see disaster on the horizon,” said Carla Saulter, a transit rider and advocate who was part of a group after the recession that considered which bus routes should be prioritized during service cuts or expansions.

As some major employers like Amazon extend work-from home policies it’s clear demand will be depressed for some time, and there are fears commuters will avoid transit following warnings from officials to avoid enclosed spaces.

“We’ve never had a situation where everyone in authority told the public to avoid public transit,” said Jarrett Walker, an international transit planner based in Portland. “We’re basically training the entire public to view public transit as dangerous.”

As much of the economy closed down and transit agencies began to worry about lost funding, some help arrived last month, thanks to a federal aid package. Still, experts say it almost won’t be enough.

Sound Transit will receive $166 million in federal funds, which represents about 45% of the agency’s annual operating budget but less than 2% of what the agency think it will lose if the upcoming downturn is similar to the Great Recession.

“In an economic catastrophe of this magnitude, we are going to bleed far more than $166 million in revenue — and we probably already have,” Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff said.

King County Metro will receive about $244 million in federal aid, shy of its projected losses of $185 million in sales-tax revenue and $80 million in farebox revenue this year. Some of that funding will cover extra costs this year and next, including employee leave, overtime and protective equipment.

Metro will consider service reductions, delays to new RapidRide lines and other ideas, said John Resha, Metro’s assistant general manager for finance and administration.

Kitsap Transit already expects a reduced workforce, and difficulty receiving metal and other supplies will delay delivery of new boats needed for the Southworth Fast Ferry. Between revenue losses and higher costs to respond to COVID-19, the agency expects a net decline in operating revenue between 17% and 34%.

At Pierce Transit, years of work rebuilding service from deep recession-era cuts will begin to be eroded. After increasing service about 19% since 2015, Pierce Transit expects to reduce service by 12% this fall.

“We feel like our ridership will come back,” said CEO Sue Dreier. “We won’t be able to serve them as well as we did before.”