By Carolyn Bick
South Seattleites who depend on King County Metro and Sound Transit services to get around may have to adjust their schedules starting on Monday, March 23. The two public transportation systems will be scaling back trips and hours, due to a significant drop in ridership, as a result of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
In a press release put out on March 19, Sound Transit said ridership has dropped 69 percent from the week before. King County Metro released a statement reporting a 60 percent reduction in ridership on March 18, compared with a similar day in 2019. The decrease in traffic came after Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee announced an emergency proclamation that placed restrictions on non-essential services and limited gatherings to fewer than 50 people, with stringent measures on those gatherings.
Metro’s Managing Director of Service Development Bill Bryant said in a press call that because there was only a modest drop in ridership on the Numbers 7, 36, and 106 buses, those routes will remain largely intact. The Number 7 bus will drop from 250 trips to a minimum of 178 trips per day, while the Number 36 bus, which normally sees 260 trips on a regular day, will drop to a minimum of 174. The 106 will see almost no change, dropping just one trip from its usual 133 trips.
Access paratransit will continue as usual, with additional sanitation measures.
Katie Wilson of the Transit Riders Union (TRU) said that the union understands that this is “an extraordinarily difficult situation for everyone,” but that the union is still concerned about any level of service cuts that could leave people without the transportation they need.
“We need to make sure that we retain geographic and time spread of service. We need to make sure that the cuts are not leaving people anywhere in the city –– especially in Southeast Seattle, where disproportionately people are dependent on transit … without service, and we can’t restrict the times of service so that people aren’t able to get around at the times of day that they need to get around,” Wilson said.
Starting on Saturday, March 21, Metro will also be suspending fare collection on trains, buses, water taxis, and Access paratransit, directing all riders to get on at the rear doors, in order to minimize contact with drivers. Sound Transit also announced it will do the same.
Metro General Manager Rob Gannon said there is no current end date for this plan.
Gannon acknowledged that this would mean a significant loss in funding for Metro, to the estimated tune of $6 million per week in combined sales tax and fare revenue. However, he said, because the public transit agency worked with King County Executive Dow Constantine and the King County Council to put in place financial reserves to act as buffers.
“It won’t solve all of our challenges, but it is allowing us now peace of mind to focus on how do we serve the customers, how do we serve the region,” Gannon said.
Wilson said that this move combined with the decrease in ridership is concerning for the future of public transit funding. Metro’s decision comes right after the passage of I-976, the challenge to which is currently in limbo in the court system. If it ends up passing the initiative will limit car tab fees, which will reduce the amount of revenue available for public transportation and public transportation initiatives, one of which was championed by South End students.
Metro General Manager Rob Gannon said that, as of right now, no Metro service workers will lose their jobs. Should the state go into lockdown, in a similar move to California, Gannon said that Metro is working closely with public health officials and Constantine, and is prepared, but declined to say what Metro would do, except that it would “respond accordingly.”
As of this writing, Inslee has not issued a similar lockdown.
In order to accommodate riders who speak limited or no English, Metro’s Public Information Officer Jeff Switzer said in an email that Metro will be posting messages in 15 different languages on social media, distributing translated materials to community partners, purchasing advertising in different languages, and posting building signage specific to the current closure of Pass Sales Office and Metro’s lost and found.
Switzer said Metro is using the languages Public Health uses for its announcements: Amharic, Arabic, Traditional Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Laotian, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Filipino, Tagalog, Ukrainian, and Vietnamese.
Starting on the afternoon of March 23, Sounder South weekday train service will drop to eight round trips from the normal 13 round trips. The southbound trips that will be cancelled are the 1503, 1509, 1517, 1519, and 1523 departures from Seattle. The northbound trips that will be cancelled are the 1502, 1504 and 1506 departures from Lakewood, and the 1516 and 1522 departures from Tacoma.
Sound Transit will also reduce service hours on its Link light rail, closing the Downtown Seattle Link stations starting on the evening of Friday, March 20, in order to allow work crews to finish the Connect 2020 construction that will mean passengers no longer need to transfer at Pioneer Square. The stations will reopen on Monday, March 23, but Sound Transit plans to keep the trains running every 14 minutes, as they have been throughout the Connect 2020 process, in order to maintain space needed for social distancing.
The Sound Transit buses operated by King County Metro will also see a 15 percent reduction in service. Riders can find out more about the affected routes –– Routes 522, 541, 542, 545, 550, 554, 555 and 556 –– on Sound Transit’s website. There is also an informational webpage detailing COVID-19’s effects on the transportation system that will be continuously updated.
Wilson said it’s difficult to say what the impacts of this wide-scale reduction in transit are going to be, but that TRU may start doing surveys of riders to gauge the effects of the cuts and reductions, in order to see if riders are being left without adequate service. She also worries about the current recommended practice of social distancing, in the face of service cuts.
“We wouldn’t want the service cuts to make it so that there are so many people on a given bus that people are having to be near each other,” Wilson said.
Both Sound Transit and Metro asked that riders keep in mind that, during the coronavirus response, apps like Google Maps, One Bus Away, and others will not reflect accurate information.
Riders should visit Metro’s site and blog to keep up-to-date, regarding trip times and schedules. As of March 19, King County Metro’s in-person services locations are temporarily closed through at least March 27.
Carolyn Bick is a South Seattle-based journalist and photographer. Reach them here.