by Erica C. Barnett
It wasn’t so long ago — just 2018 — that Seattle could be proud of its status as the only city in the nation where transit ridership was actually going up, and the number of people commuting to the center city by car was going down. COVID-19 didn’t just reverse this trend; it obliterated it. Ridership on King County Metro buses is down about 73%, while ridership on Sound Transit’s light rail line has shrunk an estimated 70%. In an attempt to protect drivers from riders who might be COVID-positive, both agencies eliminated fares, and Metro implemented back-door-only boarding, in March. Both agencies also cut service, which has led to overcrowding on popular routes, such as the Route 7, that serve essential workers getting to and from the center city.
In response to complaints, Metro added more service in April. But they also limited the number of riders who can be on a bus at one time, which has meant that people waiting at bus stops are sometimes passed up because buses are over capacity. This has created tensions, which have coalesced around so-called “non-destination riders” — people who are not going to work or running essential errands, and who generally happen to be homeless. The number of non-destination riders is higher, proportionally, than it was before. But it’s also higher in absolute terms, because libraries, community centers and day shelters — all the places people experiencing homelessness used to go during the day — are closed. This leaves only a few places for people without homes to sit down, get warm and doze off for a while.
Some riders and drivers began calling on King County Metro to address the problem by barring homeless people from riding. Other suggestions included kicking them off at the end of the line, starting to charge fares again or forcing them to wear masks. Seattle is hardly the only city whose homeless population is using buses as a substitute for shelter during the pandemic. And it’s far from the only city where people have accused homeless riders of crowding the transit system, or making it dirty or putting people at risk by not wearing masks. Leaders of some transit systems have rushed to judgment — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo stained his legacy by stating that homeless riders were “disgusting and disrespectful.” But to their credit, Metro, and its general manager, Rob Gannon, have not.
In a wide-ranging conversation this week, Gannon talked about non-destination riders, how Metro will get people back onto buses again, and the agency’s financial future.
Let’s start with what the new normal looks like. How much has ridership fallen off, and where is Metro currently seeing the highest ridership?
Even though our ridership was down dramatically — between 70 and 75 percent—we’re still seeing about 100,000 boardings each day. If you look out your window and see an empty bus, that is not a guarantee that that bus is going to be empty the entire trip.
The more heavily-used routes are in the South End and southeast King County. On the RapidRide lines — the A, the E, the D Line — we continue to see a level of ridership that makes it difficult to have a coach that is not subject to crowding conditions, which is why we’re trying to add back service.
Farebox revenues are currently nonexistent, and sales taxes, which are always volatile, are likely to take a long-term hit. How have you balanced the need to add more buses with the need to keep Metro’s budget in line with the current revenue reality?
We’re anticipating that the lost revenue associated with the pandemic response — meaning, sales tax being severely depleted and farebox not recovering because we’re operating with free fares right now — will amount to $220 million to $265 million in losses in 2020. That is now offset by about $243 million coming in [from the federal CARES Act], so we are sustainable for the current year.
What we don’t know is what the longer-term impact of the pandemic will be on the economy — when will sales tax begin to rebound and when will ridership start to come back? So our 2021-‘22 outlook is pretty stark right now. We see a recession coming and we know the Seattle Transit Benefit District [a Seattle tax that adds service inside the city] is set to expire at the end of this year. And we know that the city continues to deliberate about when and how to bring that measure back in front of the voters. I-976 [an initiative that will, if upheld, slash revenues from car taxes and fees] brings uncertainty, generally, to the financing of public transportation. So 2021 and 2022 are going to be a period where we have to consider service reductions, and the where and the how of that is something we’re going to continue to assess.
It’s hard to believe that as recently as March, Metro was holding open houses throughout Southeast Seattle on route options for the RapidRide R, which is supposed to replace the Route 7 on Rainier Ave. S. Are this route and the other planned RapidRide lines being put on hold?
The planning is not on hold. In high-level terms, when we identified those RapidRide corridors as places to enhance the service experience and to enhance the way customers can get where they need to go, that was based on some well-founded analysis and community participation. We still think those are all the right areas. The question now becomes: will we have the resources to stay on that investment timeline? We’re still doing planning, we’re still going to figure out how to engage the community, we’re still going to bring those services online. We will see delays in portions of our RapidRide program, but that doesn’t mean we are mothballing those lines.
There have been complaints from drivers and riders about homeless people riding the bus and not wearing masks or taking up seats on buses that are supposed to only be for essential rides. How do you respond to these complaints, and what is Metro currently doing to ensure rider and driver safety?
First and foremost, we’re trying to make sure that our bus system is safe and reliable in this current health crisis. It started very early with daily cleaning of the buses, disinfecting, moving to a free-fare situation to limit the amount of interaction at the front of the coach, putting up a safety strap [between the front and back of the bus], and doing rear-door boarding. We have also been in everyday contact with our employees, trying to understand what conditions they face and how we can make it safer for them, fulfilling requests for PPEs, outfitting operators with sanitation kits and gloves and hand sanitizer and wipes, and, on April 11, bringing masks into the equation [for drivers]. So a lot of that isn’t about the non-destinational rider. It’s about how do we make the system safe for all those who use it?
The rider that is finding shelter on the coach — in one sense, we all find shelter on a coach, because it is the alternative to walking, to being exposed to the elements. What we hope to see is that a rider comes on board, pays a fare, and rides to a specific destination. When they don’t, when they try to use the bus as a shelter, it inevitably presents problems of crowding. It makes it more difficult to keep the buses as clean as possible. There is occasionally conduct inconsistent with the guidance for the transit system, and we have seen an increase in those incidents.
For some, there is a perception of a degraded rider experience. I am not denying that perception, but our system is open to everyone. We provide a service to everyone. I’m not going to deny that the non-destinational riders present a challenge, especially when that group is seeking to use our buses as a shelter. That is a challenge that is not unique to transit systems. That is a pervasive challenge of homelessness, and the lack of services that are currently available is exacerbating that situation.
The Amalgamated Transit Union (which represents bus drivers) and the Transit Riders Union (an advocacy group for bus riders and low-income people), along with the MLK County Labor Council, have called on the county to require everyone to wear masks on public transit. Is this something Metro is considering, and are there civil-rights concerns with this approach?
In our regular conversations with ATU, we had talked about masks, first, for employees, and then seeing what we can do to encourage riders to wear masks. And that’s our current posture: We are doing everything we can to strongly encourage riders to wear masks. Our view is that we are not in a position, legally, to require masks to ride transit. We are working with King County Public Health to talk about why masks are so important in a confined environment like the bus and that wearing a mask is not just an inconvenience.
One suggestion that has been made in other cities is to start charging fares again, which would effectively limit ridership to “destination” riders. Metro is currently saying that fares will kick back in on May 31. Is that likely to happen, and is reducing ridership part of the equation when deciding when to put fares back in effect?
We’re using May 31 as a target date. We have not made the final decision on that yet. We want to be consistent with other regional transit agencies so there isn’t one message coming from one agency and one from another. We also want to make sure that turning fares back on, which is not as simple as uttering that phrase, is the right thing to do. That might not be the right moment to turn fares back on.
What will Metro do if other agencies in the region, such as Sound Transit, decide to turn fares back on sooner than Metro is ready?
I’m going to answer this question diplomatically. Metro is a large agency, providing service to a large county, and we think we are the transportation leader in this region. When we target May 31, that is because we think it’s going to be best for our riders and our system. We don’t expect others to follow us, but we do work with them to see the logic behind our approach. Sound Transit is considering the same factors that we are considering.
Metro, unlike other transit agencies elsewhere in the country, has refused to say how many drivers have been infected with COVID-19. Why not provide the public with that information?
This is a fair question, and probably one better addressed to public health officials. They have expressed to us, and we have heeded their advice, that expressing those numbers publicly puts individuals at risk of being identified publicly as COVID positive, and we want to avoid that stigmatization and respect that individual’s privacy. And the concern is that the public might interpret those numbers in a way that is not consistent with the guidelines of Public Health. For example, if the person thought that only two people had contracted COVID, they might believe that they could access transit in a way that was not consistent with public guidance.
What does the future of the bus system look like in an era of declining sales tax revenues and skittish passengers? How will Metro stay financially stable over the next few years and convince people who are tempted to return to driving alone that riding the bus is safe?
We’re all painfully aware that being very reliant on sales tax is not the way to sustain a system that needs to grow and needs to be there for the region. So we need to find better ways to fund transit. I think the revenue system must be much more stable, rather than fluctuating, as the sales tax does. I don’t know what the taxing or revenue gen[eration] solution is, but the tools we have are inadequate.
There’s also a public health answer to that question. So many facets of our life are going to be redefined and become very different, until we reach a point where there is a vaccine or a clearly effective treatment. What you’ll see in the transit system is a renewed focus on operating the system in a safe way. I’m sure there’s an argument to be made that cars are safer and people should just return to their cars, but that just takes us down the route of congestion and fossil fuel consumption, so I think that public transit needs to be seen as paramount.
Erica C. Barnett has covered Seattle politics since 2001 for print and online media. Read her latest at The C Is for Crank.
Featured image: by Alex Garland.