Community Transit is facing a $32.7 million revenue decline next year but plans to keep service and staffing similar to what exists now.
The outlook is in the agency’s proposed 2021 budget of $147 million in operating expenses and $96.2 million in capital expenses. A remote public hearing is scheduled Thursday and public comment ends Friday.
Looking beyond 2021, the district’s transit development plan lays out concurrent service designs for the next five years. Both are lower than projections before COVID-19 hit.
A slow economic recovery plan has less and lower service increases, with no new service hours in 2022 and 2023, then a bump of 3,105 hours in 2024 and 8,000 hours in 2025. The fast recovery outlook has additional service hours of 22,000, 22,000, 29,105, 20,000 in the years after 2021.
“For both (the 2021 proposed budget and 2020-2025 transit development plan), I think the highlight is uncertainty, financial uncertainty,” Community Transit spokesman Martin Munguia said.
As ridership plummeted across public transit systems, so did their money as fares and sales tax receipts declined for months. Community Transit, like many other agencies, cut service as demand faded. Last year fares were about 11% of total operating revenue, which exceeded $208 million. Sales tax brought in over $151 million.
The last economic dive helped steel the agency’s coffers for the pandemic’s swift and sudden hit.
“Our lesson from our Great Recession was we fully stocked all our reserves,” Munguia said.
It’s why the agency has weathered a sharp drop in fares and sales tax revenues without more dramatic employment and service cuts, including a loss of 44 operations, five maintenance and one facilities employees, and the temporary suspension of some routes during the height of the state’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy order.
Next year’s fares are estimated to drop $10 million from what was collected in 2019. Community Transit staff don’t expect ridership and fares to return to pre-COVID amounts until 2024.
By department, transportation is the largest operating expense in next year’s budget at almost $51.2 million, followed by planning and development’s $34.8 million, maintenance’s $24.3 million, and administration at $12. 4 million.
The proposed budget assumes sales tax revenue to decline by up to $32.7 million, a 21.2% drop from the adopted 2020 budget. Operating expenditures are marked to decrease 6.9%.
“If we didn’t have the CARES Act federal funding… then we would probably be cutting some (more) of our expenditures,” Munguia said.
COVID-19 prompted new expenses for daily deep cleaning of buses, ventilation systems on buses and personal protective equipment for drivers to make public transit safe. The ventilation circulates new air into a bus every five minutes compared to the average trip of between seven and 10 minutes (except commuter routes into Seattle), Munguia said.
When a bus’ capacity, reduced to accommodate social distancing, is full, drivers can switch to drop-off only at their discretion. Doing so changes the front digital sign and means they can decline picking up passengers until some current riders exit. If drivers with an at-capacity bus pass people waiting at a stop, they report it to the operations center and a standby bus and driver can be dispatched.
It’s forced Snohomish County’s public transit area that covers about 598,000 residents to lower future years’ projected sales tax revenue growth from 6% to 4%.
Even as operational uncertainty pushed the agency to craft alternate plans and a cautious budget, Swift bus rapid transit and other capital projects remain on track.
With the Northgate Link light rail extension set to open next year, Community Transit plans on shifting 800-series routes to the University District and instead connect with the Sound Transit service at Northgate.
The Swift Orange Line between Bothell and Lynnwood will be built, as will an extension of the Blue Line to the coming Sound Transit Link light rail station scheduled to open by 2024.
“The big reason for that of course is those are really vital in connecting with the regional transit system,” Munguia said. “People will easily be able to get to Seattle at any time of the day.”
Community Transit leaders also are moving ahead with the Swift Gold Line connecting Everett and Arlington. Planning is set for 2022, with construction likely starting in 2025 and completing in 2027. An early cost estimate puts it at $50 million.
The proposed 2021 budget public hearing is set for 3 p.m. Thursday during the board of directors’ meeting. Public hearing comments can be submitted online at https://www.communitytransit.org/publichearing.
Comments about the 2021 proposed budget can be sent to Budget@commtrans.org, Community Transit, 7100 Hardeson Road,Everett, WA 98203, 425-353-7433, Facebook.com/CommunityTransit, or @MyCommTrans on Twitter with the hashtag #CTBudget.
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