Metro heads toward West Seattle via Spokane Street low bridge. (Photo by Doug Trumm)
Metro heads toward West Seattle via Spokane Street low bridge. (Photo by author)

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on transit systems nationwide. King County Metro is grappling with what that means for service levels.

Fare revenue has evaporated as Metro implemented fare-free transit to allow all-door boarding and to cordon off the front of the bus to protect bus drivers, both of which reduces the risk of coronavirus transmission. Sales tax revenue is also down, and that’s the primary funding source for many transit agencies–Metro included.

Metro has reduced service as demand has plummeted as many employers implement work-from-home measures or furlough or shed employees. But this summer some service will be restored as economic activity slowly ramps up. The agency also plans to re-institute fares at the end of June or beginning of July.

15% service cut this fall

By fall, though, the situation will be dire and necessitate cuts, barring some intervention from local, state, or federal governments that doesn’t seem to forthcoming in time. Metro expects overall service to be 15% lower than the pre-pandemic baseline.

“Metro takes seriously its responsibility as a steward of public resources,” Metro spokesperson Jeff Switzer said in a press release. “This most recent projections estimate an unprecedented loss in sales tax revenue and farebox collections totaling $280 million in 2020, and up to $615 million in 2020-2022. September’s service revisions will align future transit and mobility service with available revenue.”

“We project that ridership will begin to come back,” Metro General Manager Rob Gannon said. “Our region has demonstrated time and again its love and support for transit.”

That said, Gannon is preparing for some leaner years. “I may not be bullish on the full return of ridership,” Gannon added, noting that telecommuting may continue to be popular for years, if not permanently. And, though he didn’t say it, cuts to service levels would make hitting previous ridership levels very challenging. Metro’s social distancing measure caps buses to only 12 people per 40-foot coach and 18 people per 60-foot coach, but Metro may relax that as it gets the go-ahead from Public Health — Seattle & King County.

“[R]eductions of this size will have impacts across the county and even the cancelations of some routes and services. During COVID-19, ridership has remained strongest in areas with the greatest social needs,” Switzer added. “As Metro moves forward with service reductions, we will prioritize retaining service in areas with higher proportions of people with lower incomes and people of color.”

Metro plans to forge ahead with its planned Southeast King County Bus Restructure, which steamlines and augments service in Renton, Kent, and Auburn. Those routes will operate close to full service levels in a region with a large low-income populations and communities of color.

“An important part of the September service change is the Renton-Kent-Auburn Area Mobility Plan, which restructures and adds service in South King County,” Switzer said. “Moving forward with this plan despite budget challenges reflects Metro’s commitment to serving areas of higher need and to working in partnership with communities, customers, and cities. Additionally, this part of the county has a high proportion of customers continuing to ride Metro, reflecting a reliance on transit for making essential trips.”

Metro said the following routes will return to nearly full pre-pandemic service levels in the fall: RapidRide A, B, and F Lines, 21X, 24, 101, 107, 111, 128, 131, 132, 153, 156, 182, 187, 193, 224, 230, 231, 239, 257, 303, 304, 309, 311, 330, 346, 347, 348, 631 (Burien Community Shuttle), 635 (Des Moines Community Shuttle), 773, 775, 901, 903, 907, and 930.

Overall, Metro’s executives characterized the service they’ve planned for the rest of the year as sufficient to meet demand, even if the quality of service weakens due to lower frequencies and lost routes.

No STBD renewal also a drag on service

Further deepening cuts (even on very high ridership routes like the RapidRide E Line and Route 7) is the failure to renew the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) or take it countywide–that effort stalled out due to the pandemic and recession. Metro said that officials were still working on a STBD renewal in 2021, but they couldn’t assume that money in the budget since renewal is still up in the air.

“The transit services in operation in September will be about 85% of pre-COVID levels, providing an estimated 11,000 weekday trips on 121 bus routes,” Switzer said. “Service will focus primarily on a network of all-day routes throughout King County, including preserving frequent service on Metro’s busiest routes, while restoring peak service sufficient to meet returning demand to the extent possible given the current financial challenges. The cuts are made with direction from the City of Seattle in expectation that the Seattle Transportation Benefit District will discontinue revenue collections at the end of the year.”

Metro said 68 routes will see service reductions due to the loss of STBD funding including RapidRide C, D and E Lines, and Routes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 21, 26, 27, 28, 31, 32, 33, 36, 40, 41, 43, 44, 48, 49, 50, 55, 56, 57, 73, 60, 62, 64, 65, 67, 70, 74, 75, 106, 118, 119, 120, 124, 125, 204, 208, 212, 218, 221, 225, 226, 240, 241, 245, 250, 255, 269, 271, 301, 331, 345, 372, and 373.

Meanwhile the following routes will be suspended due to STBD losses: 5X, 9, 15, 17, 18, 19, 22, 29, 37, 47, 63, 71, 76, 77, 78, 113, 114, 116, 118X, 119X, 121, 122, 123, 143, 154, 157, 167, 177, 178, 179, 190, 197, 200, 214, 216, 217, 219, 232, 237, 246, 249, 252, 268, 308, 312, 316, 342, 355, 630 (Mercer Island Community Shuttle), and 931.

Metro’s Director of Service Development Bill Bryant noted that transit will remain the most effective transportation option to serve the collective needs of West Seattle while the West Seattle Bridge is closed for emergency repairs and car capacity is constrained. I asked if the restrictions on personal vehicles on the Spokane Street Bridge was working to keep buses from getting clogged in traffic, and Bryant said it was.

From what I’ve seen, Spokane Street is not working like a true bus lane since a lot of other vehicles still use it, but avoiding the massive gridlock no restrictions would cause is still a positive. I also asked if any other bus-only lanes or queue jumps were in the works and Bryant said they were having some conversations particularly in regard to West Seattle mitigation, but didn’t offer any specific examples.

Metro no longer contracting out to police

After Metro buses transported battalions of cops during protests on May 30th, a number of transportation advocates urged Metro to cease this practice. King County Councilmembers Girmay Zahilay, Jeanne Kohl-Welles, and Joe McDermott joined with the King County NAACP, Rooted in Rights, 350 Seattle, Sierra Club Seattle Group, Greater Redmond Transportation Management Association, The Urbanist, Puget Sound Sage, and the Transit Riders Union in signing onto the letter urging Metro to change its policy.

“I was disappointed to hear that Metro had been transporting officers during a time of heightened tensions,” King County Councilmember Zahilay said in a statement. “Public transit should not be used to quell movements for justice. Metro as an organization should stand in solidarity with Black people against police brutality by changing the policies that allowed this to happen.”

Metro has responded with a policy change, and Gannon answered clarifying question from media.

“We rely on law enforcement to keep our system safe,” Gannon said. “What I’m saying is when a request for an out-of-service coach to move officers, we will no longer be entertaining those requests.”

Gannon said the practice had been fairly limited in use, but Metro changed its policy to align with its values which include respecting the right to peacefully protest and providing service to all residents. Police departments in the region won’t be able to rely on Metro buses to transport large contingents of officers.

See Metro’s blog post for more details on service changes.

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.