Despite unprecedented operational and budgetary challenges from the COVID-19 crisis, C-Tran bus service has persisted at essentially the same level as before the pandemic, and that’s not about to change anytime soon.
That was the core message from C-Tran CEO Shawn Donaghy during a Tuesday evening report delivered to the transit agency’s board of directors. The agency is also forging ahead with several key projects, he said, most notably, the planned Mill Plain bus rapid transit line.
“Our intention is to run as close as we can to full service — that’s been our goal since Day 1,” he said.
Bus ridership plummeted in March as the coronavirus pandemic worsened. Rider numbers have begun to slowly climb in the past couple of weeks, Donaghy said, but they remain far below normal; ridership in the week ending May 2 was down 55.4 percent year-over-year.
At the same time, new social-distancing requirements call for fewer riders per bus, so C-Tran has maintained a full operating schedule in order to avoid overcrowding. Any service changes that were previously planned for this year have been placed on hold, Donaghy said, to be re-evaluated in 2021.
The only exception is the commuter routes that run to Portland, some of which have been cut back because they’ve collectively seen a 90 percent drop in ridership during the pandemic.
Donaghy said the agency’s main scheduling priority is to protect routes where there is more than 30 minutes of wait time between buses. If a bus on one of those routes breaks down or a driver is unavailable, a replacement will be pulled from a more frequent route.
“As long as we’re able to have buses on every single route at all times, that’s the goal for us,” he said.
C-Tran suspended fare enforcement in March and instituted rear-door boarding in order to protect bus drivers from potential coronavirus exposure. Passengers are currently required to remain in the back half of the bus, although the front door and priority seating section are still available for riders with disabilities.
The agency is working to install protective equipment in every bus to separate the drivers from the passengers, Donaghy said. Once that work is complete, C-Tran will look at resuming fare collection and front-door boarding, possibly as early as next month.
The drop in ridership and lack of fare enforcement will be a financial hit, but the far greater concern is a decline in sales tax revenue. That impact is definitely coming, Donaghy said, although it’s too soon to know what the damage will be.
There’s some preliminary data from March, but Donaghy said it will take another two or three months before the agency can draw conclusions about where sales tax revenue is likely to end up during the pandemic.
The other big question mark is federal relief. C-Tran received about $15 million from the CARES Act — the federal coronavirus relief package — and it’s been using that money to help cover operating costs and avoid drawing down its roughly $79 million reserve balance.
C-Tran is required to have 90 days’ worth of cash on hand, Donaghy said, which is about $17 million.
“So worst-case scenario, (the CARES funding) provides us with about three months of operation if we received no sales tax at all,” Donaghy said.
Sales tax revenue isn’t going to drop off entirely. Based on current projections, Donaghy said tax revenue and the CARES funding should be enough to carry C-Tran through the rest of the year and into 2021. But the CARES funding is likely to be exhausted by the end of the year, so the budget status in 2021 will depend a lot on whether more federal relief ends up coming.
In the meantime, C-Tran has focused on trying to cut down expenses as much as possible, including by implementing a hiring freeze and placing approximately 20 percent of its workforce on voluntary leave.
The expected loss of revenue has forced the agency to hit pause on a number of planned capital projects, Donaghy said, including nearly all bus and support vehicle purchases for 2020 and likely 2021 as well. The only exception is a planned electric bus purchase in 2021, which is already funded through grant money.
A few other essential projects will continue, he said, such as an operations management system upgrade and IT infrastructure work.
Most notably, the $50 million Mill Plain rapid transit line will continue. Roughly half of the project’s budget is expected to be supplied by the Federal Transportation Administration, with some of the other half coming from local grants. C-Tran has already budgeted for the remaining roughly $21 million, Donaghy said, so the COVID-19 crisis would only impact the project in a worst-case scenario.
“If we ever got to a point where we were significantly impacted on Mill Plain BRT, we’d have much, much bigger issues with the system at large,” he said.
The project is a few weeks away from the 60 percent design milestone and is targeted to start construction as soon as the second quarter of 2021, according to Scott Patterson, chief external affairs officer.