TriMet’s board of directors passed the transit agency’s $1.6 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2021, which begins in July, on Wednesday. Last-minute changes to the budget reflect the devastating impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on TriMet’s revenue—and how long-lasting that impact could be.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in March, TriMet’s ridership had been steadily growing over the last year, and the agency looked forward to increasing its bus service by three percent in 2021.
“All of the trajectories were going up,” said Dee Brookshire, TriMet’s CFO, at a budget open house earlier this month. “Then, of course, COVID-19 and the governor’s stay-at-home order changed everything. The budget had to be entirely reworked.”
As soon as Gov. Kate Brown issued sweeping stay-at-home orders, TriMet’s ridership plunged—dropping by 70 percent at the height of the pandemic. That means the transit agency lost out on an estimated $28 million in fare revenue from March through June. On top of that, TriMet also saw a reduction in payroll taxes—Oregonians pay a 0.01 percent transit payroll tax—totaling $48 million in the same three-month period, thanks to coronavirus-induced mass layoffs across the state.
The losses are expected to continue into the next fiscal year. According to TriMet’s estimates, the gap from lost fares and payroll taxes next year will total about $135 million. Those losses should be offset by the $185 million TriMet recently received from the federal CARES Act—but that’s a one-time allotment, and the recession prompted by COVID-19 is expected to last for years.
“What this means for us is less revenue,” said Tom Mills, TriMet’s service planning manager, at the budget open house. “And revenue is what we use to operate the bus, MAX, and WES system.”
Fare revenue alone makes up 17 percent of TriMet’s budget, and transit ridership currently hovers at about two-thirds of what it was before the pandemic started. Faced with uncertainty about if or when ridership and employment will bounce back to pre-pandemic levels, TriMet is making up for the gap in part by keeping its service reduced.
When ridership dropped in March, TriMet reduced its service by 20 percent to adjust to the decreased demand. With the tri-county area TriMet serves now in Phase 1 of reopening, TriMet is starting to restore its service—but the plan is to only bring it back up to 90 percent of its previous level by August 30. After that, Mills said, further restoration in service will depend on ridership levels, funds, and the ability to properly clean vehicles in between trips.
“Hopefully we’ve experienced the worst of it all,” Mills said. “Hopefully employment starts coming back up, and our fare revenue comes back up and we can start restoring… [but] we don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know the future.”
One new investment TriMet will make in the coming year is putting $1.8 million into exploring new community-led safety strategies. However, the agency plans to continue having a transit police division, made up of officers from different police agencies in the tri-county area. Portland Police Bureau will no longer take part in the transit police after its current contract expires at the end of the year.