The Covid-19 pandemic has been very disruptive to transit, forcing agencies to vastly change operational practices and slash service while seeing ridership fall off a cliff. For King County Metro, that has meant ridership losses in the 70% to 75% range. That has mostly bottomed out with some signs of ridership recovery, but the pattern of ridership is decidedly different from pre-Covid times. Metro has been clear that operations will persist in an altered form and at reduced levels for quite some time. Agency staff pointed to long-term financial constraints that may well drag on after the pandemic lifts, last week at the Regional Transit Committee meeting, forcing even heavier and lasting cuts to service in 2021 and 2022.
On Monday though, Metro did restore enough service to bring service levels to about 85% of pre-Covid times, including resumption of entire routes. For the time being, Metro plans to run a fairly consistent style of service during the summer that looks a lot more like Saturday service: an all-day network without many peak-hour services. In the fall, further service changes are poised to be phased in.
At the Regional Transit Committee meeting, agency staff said that the pandemic has changed ridership patterns considerably. Morning and afternoon peak commute demands have largely evaporated as fewer people ride transit to offices and businesses in urban cores. Ridership is now hovering at about 124,000 daily riders, down 71% from normal times, with ridership losses having been most heavily focused on express routes in Seattle and the Eastside.
Meanwhile, ridership has been steadier and losses more minor on routes in South King County communities and some areas in Seattle where people tend to be more reliant on transit to get around. However, Metro staff have seen habits changing with persistent all-day demand, particularly during midday periods. That could suggest people who are working from home are using transit locally for midday needs.
Agency staff painted a very precarious financial outlook. Going into the pandemic, Metro already had a 10-year, $1 billion shortfall as a starting point for new investments. That was considered a manageable challenge since revenues were still well positioned with opportunities for additional resources ahead, but the pandemic jeopardized the funding streams on which Metro was relying.
Sales tax revenue has plummeted and is expected to be $200 million lower for 2020 than originally projected. Through 2022, the sales tax shortfall is expected to widen to a $465 million loss. But the long-term impacts are similar to Sound Transit’s projections where approximately $1.2 billion in sales taxes projected will simply evaporate over the next 10 years as lower economic activity in the region occurs. On top of this, Metro has suspended fares during the initial pandemic response phase and expects significantly lower ridership during the interim. Farebox recovery is generally pegged at 25% of bus service costs, making it another major source of revenue for the agency.