Federal emergency pass-through funding is heading to local transit agencies in the Puget Sound. The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) Executive Board finalized the allocations using typical distribution formulas last week. The planned funding distribution is slightly different from the preliminary allocations released earlier this month. Transit agencies provided feedback on the preliminary allocations and formula approach with general support. In total, the PSRC is responsible for allocating approximately $538.5 million in funding to nearly a dozen transit agencies as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The $2 trillion CARES Act was passed by Congress in March as a national economic relief program to support communities during the coronavirus epidemic with $25 billion pegged for essential service that transportation agencies provide. Transit agencies can use funding for operational, administrative, and capital expenses in order to respond to the coronavirus epidemic and continue service. The PSRC has reported that agencies are losing significant revenues and that all plan to use the emergency funding to cover operating expenses and lost revenues. Individual transit agencies will need to work directly with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to receive their allocated grants for eligible expenses.

Derek Young, a Pierce County Councilmember and PSRC boardmember, did raise frustrations over funding allocations on his personal Twitter account after the vote.

“We distribute FTA dollars based on current service levels. Because Washington localizes nearly all transit funding, that means the areas generating the least amount of revenue and providing the fewest service hours will receive disproportionately few dollars,” he wrote. “The disparities this creates between communities like Pierce County versus our peers are shocking and unjust. Today’s measure was a symptom of that problem and one we must fix.”

He makes a salient point where Pierce County is due for $23.4 million in emergency funding split between Pierce Transit and Pierce County for bus and ferry service. Sound Transit will also receive just over $166 million, with less than a third supporting Pierce County-based service. That does feel disproportionate when so much is going to King County and Snohomish County, but this is an unfortunate artifact of Pierce County voters refusing to fund Pierce Transit service at reasonable levels and–as Young points out–the state government failing to seriously fund transit in all communities across the state. Higher transit service levels would garner higher federal funding support under the federal funding formulas.

Perhaps pressure from local politicians and communities will finally force state legislators to right decades of wrongs in spurning transit support while spending billions on boondoggle highway pet projects.

In addition to allocations from the PSRC, several local transit agencies in the region qualify for direct allocations from the FTA. This increases the total emergency funding to $554.8 million. The 11 transportation agencies will receive the following emergency funding allocations:

  • $242.8 million for Metro;
  • $166.3 million for Sound Transit;
  • $39.2 million for Washington State Ferries;
  • $39.1 million for Community Transit;
  • $20.7 million for Pierce Transit;
  • $13.4 for Kitsap Transit;
  • $6.9 million for Intercity Transit (an additional $10.5 million is allocated directly from the federal government);
  • $3.0 million for Everett Transit;
  • $2.7 million for Pierce County (for ferries);
  • $2.3 million for Seattle; and
  • $1.1 million for Skagit Transit (an additional $5.9 million is allocated directly from the federal government).

While this emergency funding is helpful, it seems inevitable that additional federal funding will be required to keep service running. Transit ridership volumes have fallen off a cliff by more than 80% in some cases, leading to declining revenue. Local tax receipts, such as sales tax, have also plummeted as people stay home and retail businesses are shuttered. This directly hurts transit agencies that heavily rely upon those revenue sources. On the flip side, transit agencies have reduced service on a nearly weekly basis, which does reduce some operational costs and conserve cash reserves.

However, the transit agencies seem to be cutting service too much to the bone. Light rail service in Seattle is headed to 30-minute headways and heavily ridden bus routes like Metro’s Routes 7, 44, and 150 as well as the full alphabet of RapidRide Lines keep getting cut. At some point, it begs the question what the purpose of emergency funding for lifeline transit service is if transit agencies are effectively curtailing any semblance of service in communities.

If a loss of confidence in riders who need to make essential trips happens, that could spell serious troubles ahead when things begin to reopen or if a local transit funding measure is sought in the fall. Inevitably, it is going to take a long time for ridership to recover when things begin to reopen and it is safer to travel in numbers, but the transit network needs to be there for when that happens with reasonable frequency and span of service.

For now, transit agencies need to support spontaneous essential trips and keeping our grocers, first responders, medical professionals, government workers, and all of those doing essential work connected between home and work. That is what this emergency funding is for and it needs to be put to work in supporting those people.

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Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for promoting sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He advocates for smart policies, regulations, and implementation programs that enhance urban environments by committing to quality design, accommodating growth, providing a diversity of housing choices, and adequately providing public services. Stephen primarily writes about land use and transportation issues.