It wasn’t a simple decision for Emmett Heath, who has led Community Transit as its chief executive since 2014, following ten years as its administration director, to pull the cord and get off at his stop.
As it was, Heath stayed on longer than he originally intended, having planned to retire from the countywide transit agency in the year’s first quarter. The coronavirus pandemic changed those plans, Heath said during a recent interview, and he remained to see Community Transit through a serious and lingering decline in ridership and the agency’s responses to the resulting financial challenges, its plans for the future, as well as the agency’s search for a new chief executive.
Community Transit’s board of directors, whose representatives include city and county elected officials, is expected to make a final choice Thursday among three candidates for the position, with announcement following soon after. The new chief executive will face a challenge as the agency, like others, looks to continue to serve the public during the pandemic and its economic effects, but she or he inherits an agency that has been well served by its board, its staff and particularly by Heath.
In the pandemic’s first surge in March and April, Community Transit’s ridership dropped about 70 percent, with much of that loss in riders coming from its commuter routes to Bothell, University of Washington and Seattle, and a smaller decline in local fixed routes. Those losses followed ridership numbers that at the end of 2019 totaled more than 11 million passenger trips for bus, DART paratransit and van pool service. Bus ridership, alone, had increased by 5 percent to 501,000 boardings in 2019, over the previous year.
As workers have returned to jobs, some of that ridership has returned. CT has seen boardings increase to about 62 percent of previous figures, Heath said, and its route service will make a gradual return, with adjustments coming with service potentially increasing between March and September of next year.
At the same time, the agency’s capital improvement plans — $280 million of investments over the coming six years — remain in place, much of it focused on expansion of the agency’s very successful Swift bus rapid transit lines and their future connections with Sound Transit’s Link light rail stations, including the Northgate Link station next year, and Lynnwood’s Link station in 2024.
Starting with its Swift Blue Line between Everett Station and the Aurora Village Transit Station, now marking its 11th year, the bus rapid transit system has since expanded with its Green Line between the Seaway Transit Station at Paine Field and Canyon Park park-and-ride in Bothell. Coming in 2024, a new Orange Line will connect Edmonds College, the Lynnwood Link stop, Alderwood Mall, Swamp Creeks park-and-ride, the Mill Creek Town Center and Everett’s McCollum Park park-and-ride.
“It’s no longer about a single Swift line, not about a blue line or a green line or an orange line or a gold line; it’s the build-out of a rapid transit network for the county,” Heath said, one that will continue to connect with Community Transit’s — and other transit services’ — local fixed routes so it’s easy for riders to get to and from rapid transit.
CT’s next chief executive will, as Heath has in recent years, likely be part of an ongoing conversation with its sister agency, Everett Transit, as the City of Everett weighs how to continue to provide bus service within Everett and other transit connections. Along with options that would keep the city agency within its control would be a merger or consolidation with Community Transit.
“What I’ve told the mayor from day one, if the city’s choice is to join our service area, we are ready, willing and able to serve the citizens of Everett,” Heath said.
When Community Transit’s board of directors asked Heath to push out his retirement date to guide it through the toughest parts of the pandemic, Heath didn’t balk at saying yes. Choosing a specific date was tougher.
“You like to see things through to completion, but you’re always starting new stuff,” Heath said as his Dec. 25 retirement approaches. “There is no way to retire from a position like mine where everything’s done.”
If the work isn’t done, Heath has left the bus in good shape for the next driver.