As a supplement to last year’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, additional federal funding has come through providing local transit agencies with $604 million more to weather pandemic shortfalls. The funding comes from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSAA) Act of 2021 passed by Congress in December. The act’s biggest beneficiary in the region is King County Metro. Nationwide, the federal government allocated $14 billion for transit to shore up budgets for the next couple of years.

Last week, the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) approved specific funding distributions for each transit agency in the four-county region (King, Pierce, Snohomish, and Kitsap Counties). The funding distributions by transit agency break down as follows:

  • $258,199,722 for Metro;
  • $179,660,964 for Sound Transit;
  • $50,000,000 for Washington State Ferries;
  • $35,417,280 for Community Transit;
  • $28,490,069 for Pierce Transit;
  • $13,998,231 for Kitsap Transit;
  • $8,887,014 for Everett Transit;
  • $2,913,242 for Pierce County Ferry; and
  • $2,617,679 for Seattle.

As a city, Seattle is somewhat unique in that it is eligible for funding because it purchases transit service from Metro even though it doesn’t actually operate its transit service.

The methodology for allocating funding is a little complicated. Federal allocations are by Urbanized Areas (UZAs) and CRRSSA Act capped total qualifying funding at 75% of 2018 operating costs. This cap, however, does not affect how distributions by the PSRC can be made to each transit agency within a UZA. The initial federal allocation therefore meant the PSRC received UZA funding allocations as follows:

  • $565,953,787 for the Seattle-Tacoma-Everett UZA;
  • $12,303,486 for the Bremerton UZA (Kitsap County); and
  • $1,926,927 for the Marysville UZA (Snohomish County).

The latter two allocations meant that only funding in those counties be used on Kitsap Transit and Community Transit while the Seattle-Tacoma-Everett UZA funding could be split among multiple agencies in the four counties.

Prior to a recommendation to the PSRC’s Executive Board, agency staff worked with transit agencies over the past three months to determine specific funding distributions. The agency also consulted with other groups on methodology options in response to equity concerns expressed last year as part of the CARES Act funding distributions.

“Multiple options for distribution among the transit agencies within the Seattle-Tacoma-Everett UZA were developed and reviewed by the Regional FTA Caucus and the Transportation Operators Committee (TOC),” an agency report states. “These options ranged from the established earned share methodology to options more closely aligned with the origins of the federal CRRSAA formula, with multiple hybrid options in between. While the federal legislation included a specific formula for apportioning funds to each UZA in the country, the decision as to the distribution of funds to each transit operator within a given UZA is left to local decision making.”

The report goes on to state that transit agency leaders met to develop a “consensus recommendation” for funding distributions. “Six of the nine transit operators within the Seattle-Tacoma-Everett UZA offered to take a 2.5% reduction as an equity adjustment, to be distributed to the remaining three agencies — Everett Transit, Pierce Transit, and the Washington State Ferries. These three agencies had a lower total percentage of their operating costs covered by the combination of CARES and CRRSAA funds than the other agencies in the region,” according to the report. “Intercity Transit and Skagit Transit — external to the region but providing commuter service to the area — both exceed this percentage calculation and are therefore recommended not to receive additional funding. Lastly, as part of the recommendation, Washington State Ferries volunteered to reduce the amount of additional funding they would have received by approximately $2 million, to be redistributed to Everett Transit and Pierce Transit.”

The PSRC Executive Board approved the recommended funding distributions, which means a record of the agreement is sent back to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Individual transit agencies can then work with the FTA to get their funding grants for distribution.

Pierce County Councilmember Derek Young, however, voted against the funding distributions which are largely based upon how much transit service agencies can afford rather than need. He has argued that the methodology is unfair to cash poor agencies like Pierce Transit. In a tweet thread, he said that equity should be a higher consideration in allocations and distributions.

Fundamentally though, Pierce Transit cut back its service area in the last decade and funds very low levels of annual service hours. The transit agency’s service levels are lower than Community Transit’s and comparatively represents a small fraction to Metro and Sound Transit’s service levels.

Other transit agencies in Puget Sound have benefited from direct allocations by the Federal Transit Administration as follows: $10,994,276 for Intercity Transit, $9,342,245 for Whatcom Transit Authority, and $3,785,187 for Skagit Transit.

Funding is intended to first cover payroll costs and avoid furloughs. It is also intended to provide for operations, maintenance, and emergency costs that transit agencies are incurring from the pandemic. Ultimately, the funding is fairly flexible but transit agencies seem likely to keep it focused on keeping service running and restoring it where it has been cut.

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Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. Stephen lives in Kenmore and primarily covers land use and transportation issues for The Urbanist.

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Young seems to have a point. Snohomish County appears to have benefited by having two agencies do much the same thing. As a result, Snohomish County gets about 28 million, while Pierce gets around 42. Given that the counties are so similar, that seems like a disconnect. They both have about the same number of people. Neither is particularly densely populated, and if anything, Pierce is more strongly centered (Tacoma is bigger than any city in Snohomish County by a long shot). Community transit does have better ridership, but that may be because they have been funded better in the past. Pierce County should get another 10 million or so.

For that matter, it is hard to see why Seattle gets around 3 million, while Everett gets 9. Three times as much money for a city 1/8 the size. If you looked at ridership, it would probably be an even bigger difference. It is tough to do so, since Seattle doesn’t run its own buses.

Sound Transit looks to be overfunded as well. It gets around 160,000 riders a day (on Link, Sounder and their express buses). Metro gets over 500,000. Metro should get over twice, if not three times as much money as ST, but they won’t.

Stephen Fesler

It looks like your SnoCo/Pierce numbers are flipped? For a bit more context, the federal allocations are largely based on pre-pandemic service levels. Community Transit has much higher levels of transit service than Pierce Transit partially because of the service area size and partially because voters have supported tax increases for more service. Everett operates its own thing. And Seattle has the Seattle Streetcar and buys Metro service. The allocations have nothing to do with ridership or population. If it did, it might be even more lopsided toward Metro and ST.

Last edited 7 months ago by safesler