‘How will public transit survive?’ An examination in Portland and Seattle

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This series is sponsored by VertueLab. VertueLab did not provide editorial input.

Have you taken public transportation recently? If you said no, you’re not alone. Since the start of the pandemic, ridership has dropped drastically for public transit across the country. Between sanitation concerns and the fact that many employees are working from home these days, people have been avoiding taking public transit for the past few months, and it’s taking a toll on transportation in cities. 

What does that mean for public transit in the Pacific Northwest? 

Reader Julie F. asked that question for our series on climate action: How will public transit survive the falling ridership and revenues wrought by the pandemic?

We dug into that question in Seattle and Portland, and here’s what we found. 

Low ridership

In Seattle, there’s lots of public transportation options, but they all have one thing in common right now. From the ferries to the streetcar to the light rail, all have seen ridership drastically drop. King County Metro has seen a 60% drop in ridership compared to what it usually is around this time of year, according to Jeff Switzer, a spokesperson for the agency. Meanwhile, Sound Transit has seen ridership drop 80%, John Gallagher, a public information officer for the organization, said. 

TriMet in Portland is also down by around 60% in its ridership numbers, according to Roberta Altstadt, media relations and communications manager. As a result, they’ve reduced service by about 20%. 

The sparsely filled buses and light rail cars strongly suggest a gloomy future for these public transit agencies. But there are other if not more important sources for their operational budgets — like taxes. 

The financial impact of the pandemic

The 2019-2020 operating budget for King County Metro was $1.9 billion. About 52% of the budget came from sales tax, while only 15% came from fare collection. This simple fact has meant that King County Metro has done all right compared to other agencies who rely on fare collection for the majority of their operating budget. 

But that also doesn’t mean King County Metro isn’t feeling the impact of the pandemic. Before 2000, the organization relied on state funding for a third of its budget, and the shift to getting that money from sales tax means they’re more subject to economic conditions. And if there’s anything we can count on as a result of the pandemic it’s an economic downturn. Switzer said King County Metro predicts that between 2020-2022 they will lose $465 million in sales tax revenue and between $130 million to $150 million in fare collection. This means reduced service and possible layoffs as it struggles to fight a shrinking budget. 

Comparatively, Sound Transit is also facing a reduced budget due to sales tax and fare collections being lower than usual. The organization’s 2020 budget was set for $2.5 billion dollars but in a recent letter to Sen. Patty Murray, the Sound Transit Board of Directors estimated an estimated $1 billion revenue loss through 2021. 

Gallagher says that besides reduced service, the timeline of Sound Transit’s expansion projects may be disrupted. However, projects already underway will continue as planned.

The story is the same in Portland. The Portland Mercury reported that TriMet is facing similar issues. However, unlike King County Metro and, for a period, Sound Transit, TriMet has continued to collect fares. But that hasn’t mattered much, they’re expecting a loss of $135 million next year between decreased fares and payroll taxes. 

All three agencies have received money from the CARES Act, but that money is a one-time payment that will carry them only so far. Starting this month, TriMet has started to restore some service that they hope will increase ridership. Sound Transit has similarly announced some increase in service starting September 19. Only time will tell exactly how big of an impact the pandemic will have on the agencies. 

New safety precautions

While some have been skeptical of taking public transportation during the pandemic, many riders have no choice in the matter. 

King County Metro, Sound Transit, and TriMet have all increased sanitation and cleanings of the vehicles they operate, reduced their capacity to allow for social distancing, and encourage contactless payment. All three agencies require passengers to wear face masks, and Altstadt said TriMet is installing face mask and hand sanitizer dispensers on all its vehicles. The agency is also working on speeding up the installation of plexiglass in its vehicles which had already been planned. 

Similar to the New York City subway system, Gallagher explained that Sound Transit has an air ventilation system. And according to Switzer, King County Metro is also exploring the possibility of having a panel to protect drivers from passengers. Currently, people board and exit the buses from the back. Altstadt explained TriMet’s buses were not designed for that and instead have focused on distributing their Hop cards which allow for contactless payment. 

You can find guidelines and precautions each agency is taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19 here: TriMet, Sound Transit, King County Metro.

The future of public transportation

The need for public transit is not lost on these agencies. From essential workers to folks who need to take the bus to pick up their medications or get groceries, these agencies are working hard to keep providing service to those who need it. It is important to note that the majority of those who rely on public transit are people from marginalized communities. These are the same people who make up the majority of essential workers and whose communities are being hit hardest by COVID-19

Many agencies have lobbied the federal government for additional funding to the CARES Act but there’s no guarantee in what and if anything will be passed. The bottom line is that just like everything else during this pandemic, no one can be certain about the future.