PORT TOWNSEND — The coronavirus pandemic has slashed ridership on Jefferson Transit buses by half and cut sales tax revenues by 15 percent this year.
In spite of those setbacks, board chair David Faber said the public transit agency is well positioned to navigate what he hopes is a relatively temporary economic rough patch.
“Thanks to our shrewd staff, we’ve budgeted conservatively and we have long-term reserves, so we can coast for a while and see how our grant funding shakes out,” said Faber, who also serves as Port Townsend’s deputy mayor.
“We couldn’t have anticipated what’s happening now, but some kind of recession was expected to hit at some point. So, because of how we budgeted, this crush isn’t completely decimating us.”
Last week, the agency’s board considered comments and held a public hearing on its annual six-year development plan, which looks back to 2019 and sets goals through 2025.
The board will conduct a special meeting at 2 p.m. Friday to vote on the plan.
Information on how to tune in to the remote meeting will be posted to the agency’s website.
As the COVID-19 pandemic forced a partial economic shutdown in late March, Jefferson Transit responded by closing in-person customer service, cutting on-the-road service by 60 percent, mandating backdoor boarding for most passengers and stopped collecting fares to reduce its drivers’ exposure to the virus.
“We had already been talking about going fare-free to reduce barriers to ridership,” said Faber, who added that fare revenue, which is down more than 80 percent this year compared with 2019, represents a relatively nominal portion of the agency’s overall revenue picture.
General Manager Tammi Rubert said fares will remain free until further notice, but the agency’s operating costs are projected to keep growing.
And with cuts this year to grants funded on three-year cycles by state and federal coffers, Rubert said she’s hopeful Congress will continue to provide the level of funding seen in the CARES Act earlier this year.
“The question in my mind is what comes next after the CARES Act,” she said. “It could be apocalyptic for transit if this recession goes on much longer and we continue to lose ridership.”
In April, Jefferson Transit received $1.17 million from the federal funding package, which allowed the agency to avoid “mass layoffs,” according to the development plan.
Faber, however, is optimistic that if Congress doesn’t deliver another round of funding for transit this year, it will likely do so next year. And even if it doesn’t, he said the agency’s reserves are flush enough, thanks to solid sales tax revenues over the past eight years, to weather a lingering recession.
“My sense is that transit agencies, and specifically rural transit agencies, which are a lifeline for a lot of people, are not going to be dropped like a sack of bricks,” he said.
As for the agency’s longer-term goals, staff members are beginning to discuss how to resume development of a 20-year, long-range plan that began early this year with an open house to collect public input but was put on hold when the pandemic hit.
Rubert said she’s looking forward to a board meeting in the next few months when consultant Fehr and Peers will present insights on commuter and tourist traffic based on analysis of cell phone data.
Some local residents who provided feedback on the agency’s development plan said they hope that kind of data will inform service adjustments that get more cars off the road in order to cut overall greenhouse gas emissions.
For now, staff are adding language to the development plan to make clear the agency’s intent to reduce the impact of fossil-fuel-reliant travel on climate change.
“That will be an essential part of our long-range planning,” Faber said.
Jefferson County reporter Nicholas Johnson can be reached by email at [email protected].