This op-ed originally ran in the October 19, 2020 edition of Passenger Transport, the magazine of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).
I offer profound appreciation to my King County Metro colleagues for keeping our region moving, and to our customers and partners for their unwavering support. Being the first U.S. state with a confirmed COVID-19 case required Metro to respond quickly, but it was also an opportunity to lead with our safety, equity and sustainability values.
At the beginning of this year, our region’s transit was safely delivering more than 500,000 trips every day, providing an accessible and affordable network, and effectively taking more than 190,000 cars off the road. Since then, COVID-19 has negatively affected our ridership, revenue and ability to plan for growth. However, our underlying values are stronger than ever.
With safety always our number-one priority, we made system-wide enhancements— guided by health expertise—and then continuously improved and expanded upon them. To mention a few, we disinfect every vehicle every day, require masks, maintain passenger limits, encourage physical distancing and provide leave to higher-risk employees. Recently, we added onboard mask dispensers on busier routes and installed a safety partition between the driver and passengers.
Ridership declined as many customers heeded direction from elected leaders and health officials to make essential trips only. However, we maintained a regional transit network because more than one in four of our customers counted on us to access work, groceries, medicine and other critical needs. We also temporarily repurposed some of our available Access paratransit vans to deliver food to more than 10,000 families through 25 community organizations. Across our system, we carefully monitored trends, added back service where needed and doubled down on our commitment to prioritizing communities of greatest need.
And when budget revenues and forecasts fell, sustainability could have been an easy target. However, we could not ignore the climate crisis nor the health of priority populations most likely to endure poor air quality. The next two years’ proposed budget includes launching the first 40 of a new generation of long-range battery-electric buses and designing clean-air charging facilities to serve communities disproportionately impacted by pollution.
While I remain confident our regional transit network will rebuild even better than before, I cannot understate harsh budget realities or the difficult decisions of recent months and the months ahead. These are challenging, isolating and exhausting times—even without the national reckoning on racial injustice we are navigating. I often tell my team that though the current work is heavy, and the stakes are high, I wouldn’t pick any other organization or group of individuals to see us through. To quote the late Congressman John Lewis, “We may not have chosen the time, but the time has chosen us.” Mobility and opportunity will always be causes worth fighting for—now more than ever.
Terry White is interim general manager of King County Metro.