People who rely on Everett Transit to get around could have fewer options next year, and maybe beyond, as the city’s leaders consider service cuts of about 25% from 2019.
Sunday and holiday service could vanish. The route connecting the train station, Everett Community College/Washington State University Everett and the waterfront — scrapped this year during the pandemic — could see reduced service, along with other routes with low ridership, according to a five-year service plan presented to the Everett City Council on Oct. 21.
“I’m obviously mourning the loss of Sunday/holiday service because I know how much our transit system is relied on by the transit dependent,” Everett City Councilmember Scott Bader said during the Oct. 21 meeting.
Public transit use declined across the country when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Unemployment soared. People began working from home and avoiding crowds on buses and light rail. Everett Transit’s operating revenue is estimated to lose about $1.27 million in fare collection. Fixed-route ridership is down about 55%, with slightly better ridership on Saturdays, while paratransit is down 67%, according to Everett Transit Director Tom Hingson. Despite lower fare revenue, city staff estimate Everett Transit to have more money in 2020 in part because of a $3 million CARES Act grant and another $2.5 million in federal grants.
But next year, operating revenue is projected to drop $3.3 million from 2019. Expenditures are expected to decrease as well by about $1.7 million with service changes implemented during the emergency peak of COVID-19 becoming permanent for the coming five years. Cuts will cover that funding gap.
“This is a sustainable budget for the long term, if we add service back in it becomes less sustainable,” Hingson said.
The city is in the process of evaluating its transit service and residents’ opinions about its future. The program, ReThink Transit, asks people about their use of the system and what they’re willing to support: growth through a voter-approved sales tax increase, growth through a voter-approved merger with Community Transit, or keeping things as they are, in which Everett Transit’s expenses are projected to exceed revenue within five to 10 years.
Combining with Community Transit, which serves most other cities in Snohomish County, could cost people more, because its sales tax rate (1.2%) is higher than what was floated to bolster Everett Transit (from 0.6% to 0.9%).
“To merge with Community Transit has a sales tax implication above what it might be to reinforce our own system,” Everett City Councilmember Jeff Moore said.
Paratransit ridership’s plummeting trend won’t continue forever and could recover quickly once the pandemic ends, so Everett Transit plans to replace six vans for paratransit use in 2025 after replacing 18 this year.
But the union representing most of Everett Transit’s workers isn’t waiting on the city for financial answers. Steve Oss, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 883, said they “are doing what we can” to restore routes. The union could write an initiative to raise the sales tax to put before Everett voters next fall.
“With the additional revenue, there is no reason we won’t be able to have all of our service back, including Sunday service,” Oss said. “There’s a lot of people with special needs who use our services. There’s a lot of people who use our services to go to church and they can’t now. People’s lives, for a lot of them, revolve around Everett Transit. We have a responsibility to make sure to meet the needs there.”
Oss credited city leaders for safety precautions and supplies for their transit employees, who have not had any coronavirus cases despite running throughout the pandemic.
“Our protective equipment is as good as probably just about anybody,” Oss said.
In its regular bus fleet, the city continues to electrify its vehicles and scrap its old diesel buses. To date, seven of the city’s buses are battery-electric. Another 14 are slated for purchase by 2025. Inductive charging devices, also called wireless or non-contact charging, at up to five locations will improve the next nine buses’ efficiency and use.
They’ve worked well for Link Transit based in Wenatchee, the first transit agency in the country to use one in 2018.
“This really does make battery-electric viable moving forward,” Link Transit General Manager Richard DeRock said. “Battery buses, most of us have thought about them as being a niche market.”
Link is in the process of installing three inductive chargers and replacing the first one to help juice its fleet of 15 battery-electric buses that should be on the road by the end of next year. Each charger costs about $200,000, but DeRock said the transit agency already saved over $300,000 in fuel so far this year.
Everett’s old diesel buses will be decommissioned and destroyed, per requirements of the Washington State Department of Ecology grants used to buy 11 new electric buses. When Everett Transit has replaced diesel buses in the past, it sold or put up for surplus the old vehicles. The city can’t just burn them in a bonfire, which City Councilmember Liz Vogeli jokingly suggested. Instead it will cost the city to contract with a company that specializes in decommissioning vehicles.
“Normally we would sell them at auction and get maybe $5,000 — not much,” Hingson said.
Anchoring the city’s bus service is its main transportation hub, Everett Station. In 2019, Everett Transit’s operating fund supplemented the property’s budget by almost $290,000.
“Everett Station is a big majestic crown jewel of a building, but the cost of operations and repairs continue to exceed the revenue we can get from leases, use agreements and room rentals,” Hingson said.
The city is likely to resume the ReThink Transit public process in early 2021, when people can formally weigh in on the future of the city’s transit system, after suspending it this summer.
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