Capital Metro Braces For Ridership, Financial Impact Of COVID-19

Mar 17, 2020

Capital Metro will be running fewer buses and trains on many routes starting Wednesday and is developing financial contingency plans in response to COVID-19. To protect drivers, Cap Metro is also asking passengers to enter buses through the rear door, unless they’re paying with cash or need the ramp.

MetroAccess service and most bus routes will run on a Sunday schedule; MetroRail will run on a Monday–Thursday schedule five days a week, with no late-night service on Friday or Saturday service. The agency has set up a website with updates.

“The balance between making sure we can protect our employees, continue to sustain this service and that we just aren’t seeing the ridership demand, all came together to inform us that it made sense to start operating reduced schedules,” Chief Operating Officer Dottie Watkins told the Cap Metro board during an emergency meeting Tuesday morning. 

Watkins said ridership was down 40% across the board Monday – but people are still riding the bus.

Cap Metro is also working to ensure redundancy in dispatch operations, in case an employee is infected and an office needs to be shut down temporarily. Other employees are being directed to telework if possible, and the agency is working with the union and bus contractor MV Transportation on sick leave policies.

“All of our planning has been under the assumption that we are running a marathon and not a sprint,” Watkins said. “And so, we want to make sure that what we do, we’re able to maintain on a long-term basis, if necessary.”

'A significant hit' to finances

Cap Metro is projecting a financial hit not only from ridership declines, but also an expected drop in sales tax revenue.

The agency is far more reliant on sales tax revenue than ridership revenue, unlike some other agencies across the country. The agency had expected to receive $265 million in sales tax revenue this fiscal year compared to $22.5 million in passenger fare revenue. Sales tax revenue had been growing year over year in recent months.

Officials said the agency has at least three months' worth of emergency reserves, no debt and most needed maintenance projects are paid for.

“We may be one of the best transit agencies financially going into this type of crisis, so we feel good about that,” Cap Metro CEO Randy Clarke said. “With that said, with every dollar of reserve that goes away, we’re going to have to put that back into reserve eventually and other projects and whatnot.”

Clarke said a hiring freeze is in place, as well as spending control on certain projects. He also said the situation may have an impact on Project Connect, the city's ambitious transit expansion plan. It's too early to say exactly what that would be. 

Transit officials are hopeful that any federal economic package also provides relief for transit agencies around the country.

The board also approved an emergency declaration allowing Clarke and other staff members to make service and fare changes, as well as enter into certain purchasing contracts without board approval. It allows Cap Metro to be agile in responding to changing conditions, Kerri Butcher, chief of staff and chief counsel, said.

Got a tip? Email Samuel King at samuel@kut.org. Follow him @SamuelKingNews.

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it. Your gift pays for everything you find on KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.