EVERETT — The leaders of Everett Transit want to be prepared for a growing population and an increasingly urban downtown.
At the same time, the city’s bus service faces challenges in paying the bills in the next few years — something that’s come up during budget talks.
“Transit is bleeding red ink,” City Councilman Scott Murphy said at a recent public meeting.
The city’s long-term spending is outpacing revenue, creating a structural deficit in the general fund. That’s been a hot topic lately. Everett Transit isn’t part of the general fund, but it’s still seeing scrutiny.
When Mayor Cassie Franklin issued a directive last month, outlining her plans to tackle the budget, she said every city department would be asked to submit ideas for saving money, including trimming services.
The directive includes exploring “alternative funding or service delivery models” for several large departments, including Everett Transit, city spokesman Meghan Pembroke said Tuesday.
Everett Transit’s operating budget for this year is $24.5 million. If no changes are made, it could be running in the red by $1.6 million in 2020. The agency has used reserves to avoid shortfalls after the Great Recession, and it made cuts to save money in 2012, said Sabina Popa, who oversees service planning.
“We’re not looking very good in the next few years,” she said. “What we need to do is not just cut service hours but restructure the routes to be more efficient.”
The bus system is designed to be a public service, not to rake in cash, but it is supposed to be sustainable.
“We can only offer the services we can afford,” she said.
The agency has 156 employees. It runs 42 buses on 11 routes, in addition to paratransit for seniors and those with disabilities. The most popular route runs from Everett Community College to Everett Station, along Hewitt Avenue and then along Evergreen Way to Everett Mall. It sees 76,790 boardings a month.
Sales tax provides about 80 percent of Everett Transit’s revenues. That income is subject to economic fluctuation, and Everett’s retail sector has been struggling. At a City Council retreat in February, city treasurer Susy Haugen cited the vacancies at the Everett Mall, including the old Macy’s, as well as the unrealized commercial space for the Riverfront development.
Meanwhile, Everett Transit has drafted a 20-year plan, looking at short-term and long-term goals. The draft included two rounds of public feedback last year, and more than 1,000 people participated each time. Two more presentations are scheduled at meetings this month, and the City Council will be tasked with approving a final version of the plan in the spring. Any changes are unlikely to occur until 2019.
That includes potential fare increases for the first time since 2013. Fares bring in only about 7 percent of the agency’s revenue, though. Most of that money over the next five years would be absorbed by technology upgrades, said Lyle Ryan, the mayor’s chief of staff. That has to do with an overhaul of the regional ORCA network for bus passes.
Another option would be cutting bus hours, including Sundays and holidays. However, Everett Transit has recommended first considering its short-term recommendations for a more sustainable network, Popa said. Paratransit service also currently exceeds what’s required by law.
So far, the feedback from residents is they want an intensely local service, Popa said. They most value frequency: At the moment, some stops only get passed once an hour. That can make it hard to time a commute.
“In a network that connects more often, you don’t have to think about that schedule,” she said.
That request was followed closely by additional coverage areas, meaning wider-ranging buses and shorter walks to stops.
“They want high frequency and high coverage,” Popa said. “They want a lot of buses in all the neighborhoods that run frequently … There is a trade-off between frequency and coverage that transit always has to deal with.”
Another period of public comment for Everett Transit’s long-range plan runs through March 30. A survey is available online, as well as a draft of the plan.
Presentations are set for public meetings at 9 a.m. Thursday at the public works building, 3200 Cedar St., and 4:30 p.m. March 26 before the Council of Neighborhoods, which meets on the eighth floor of City Hall.
More info: www.Everett Transit.org/Future, 425-257-8805.
Everett Transit by the numbers
For buses with fixed routes:
4 miles: average trip.
17 minutes: average wait during commute hours, 23 minutes otherwise.
33 buses: running during peak hours.
80 percent of rides: direct trips, without transfers.
6,500 trips taken by riders every week day.
1.9 million boardings in 2017.