Special Report: On the Front Line: Sound Transit hit hard financially by coronavirus pandemic

Written by Bill Wilson, Editor-in-Chief
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Over 50 percent of Sound Transit’s revenue comes from sales taxes, which have been suspended due to the coronavirus.
Sound Transit

The state of Washington was to first feel the impact of the coronavirus. It was the first to report a case in the U.S. and the first to report a death. Sound Transit has been dealing with the struggle since the coronavirus hit the region, and has been drowning in the unknowns.

Sound Transit has suffered a 70 percent decline in ridership over the last month. In response, the agency has reduced service—normally in peak times there are six-minute headways and now there are 14-minute headways—and on March 20 all fares system-wide were suspended. With Gov. Jay Inslee ordering a shelter-in-place, businesses are now boarded up, and 58 percent of Sound Transit money comes from sales taxes. So as Sound Transit deals with its most difficult time from a financial perspective, no money is coming in.

“It is really too early to even get a handle on what the financial impact will be,” John Gallagher, a public information officer for Sound Transit, told RT&S. “We are dependent on sales tax for our income, and those will be taking a substantial hit because of the economic impact of the virus.”

Congress appears to be on the brink of passing a $2 trillion stimulus package that should provide some financial assistance to transit agencies like Sound Transit. However, New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority recently asked for $4 billion in relief. With the federal government having to serve private citizens as well as a number of industries, the stimulus might not be much of a life preserver.

“Until the dust settles it really is going to be impossible to predict because every day brings a new issue and a new challenge,” said Gallagher. “We just have to get through the worst of this, come out the other side and then we will be able to assess what the damage has been and how we will be able to correct it.”

As for sanitation, Sound Transit has been working with its contractors to make sure train cars are disinfected once a day. King County Metro is responsible for the Link light rail system and Amtrak takes care of Sound Transit’s commuter rail line.

“We do realize even disinfecting once a day, once a train goes into service and people start boarding it, it is no longer disinfected. Something we have been encouraging riders is to be doing their best to help us maintain the safety of our vehicles.”

Gallagher said the coronavirus has not hit any of the many operators that run light rail cars, but a couple of cases have popped up on the administration end. Gallagher, however, does believe that the virus infecting operators is “likely inevitable.”

Sound Transit is in the midst of a massive system expansion, and last week the city of Boston suspended all construction activity in the metropolitan area. Seattle and the state of Washington are currently exempting construction activities from the shelter in place order, but that could change if the coronavirus situation worsens.

“We have been working with our contractors to ensure they are instituting all of the safety protocols necessary,” said Gallagher. “They are the ones responsible for the safety of their workers. It is a very fluid situation so it is very hard to predict what may happen, but right now construction is still under way.”

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Categories: Commuter/Regional, Passenger, Rail News, Railroad News, Rapid Transit/Light Rail
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