In a notice late this evening, King County Metro warned that service may be affected over the next two weeks with heavy cancellations. The agency was vague in expected service level reductions, but promised that more than 90% of scheduled service would operate. Metro blamed the service reductions on “reduced workforce availability” and the fact that the agency is recovering from the recent snowstorm.
The reduced service period is expected to run through at least Friday, January 21st. A handful of routes will be suspended, including Routes 162, 177, 304, 320, and 330 on weekdays and Route 125 on Saturday. Metro otherwise plans to operate its full network with the caveat that cancellations of specific trips may be possible.
Riders are advised to use trip planning tools to ensure their routes are operating as expected, such as the Puget Sound Trip Planner or real-time stop number-based text system. Third-party trip planning apps should also be useful during this period and real-time information signs at stops.
Reached for comment this evening, Jeff Switzer, a spokesperson for Metro, didn’t directly blame Covid for the service reductions, but did say that “it’s a combination of our ongoing workforce shortage, increased sick calls, and recovering fleet from the recent snowstorms.”
As we reported yesterday, Metro is facing a complex set of factors that have affected available staffing levels recently. Part of that is the absolute number of operators, which have been on the decline since September and have fallen from 2,734 to 2,680 as of last week. The agency is hiring and training new staff, who are progressively coming on line (a small class of operators graduated last week and a large one starts training this week). But that could take awhile as the agency is targeting 50 full-time equivalent new hires to reach about 2,723 operators (about 2,100 full-time, 600 part-time) this year.
Last week, Switzer had also told The Urbanist that the agency “saw an uptick on Thursday in our number of canceled trips due to operator availability.” Though Switzer didn’t specify a number on staff sick from Covid on Thursday, Switzer did provide data on recent staff-reported Covid illnesses. Compared to the fall, the number of staff-reported Covid illnesses spiked in December with 39 cases (there were 13 cases in October and nine case in November). In fact, nearly all of the reported cases from last month came in an 11-day period from December 21st through December 31st, totaling a whopping 37. That seems to track with the exploding Covid case counts in King County from the Omicron variant, which became the main variant spreading across communities in the latter half of December. Case count rates have continued to climb much higher since.
So with already thin staffing levels and other issues, Covid could deliver another unneeded punch in this latest round of service disruptions. And that could persist for awhile even though there is some belief that we could reach peak Covid by Friday in Washington, according to data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. From there, we could begin to see numbers quickly fall down over the next month or two. But it’s really a matter of wait and see.
Stephen is a professional urban planner in Puget Sound 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. With stints in great cities like Bellingham and Cork, Stephen currently lives in Seattle. He primarily covers land use and transportation issues and has been with The Urbanist since 2014.