Puget Sound’s strategy to center equity in the new normal

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Spurred on by COVID-19 disruptions, leaders of the Puget Sound Regional Council found a new way to allocate federal transit formula dollars. Their equity-focused distribution could help the most vulnerable communities while also adapting to new travel trends.

A Black man begins to board a King County Metro Route 48 bus after waiting at a bus shelter
Flickr photo by Oran Viriyincy

The COVID-19 pandemic was, and remains, one of the most influential shocks to transit systems across the country. Transit agencies struggled with lost revenue and ridership paired with escalating operating costs. The federal government intervened during the height of the pandemic by investing billions in stimulus and relief through Federal Transit Administration (FTA) formula funding.  But when those funds arrived in Puget Sound, it became apparent to some leaders in the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) that this funding was not flowing to disadvantaged communities that needed it most. 

Rather than continuing on as is, members of the PSRC’s Transportation Policy Board (TPB) and local transit agency leadership came together to rethink how the region uses federal formula dollars to prioritize equity and build up service for disadvantaged communities.

Traditional distributions

The FTA apportions formula funds to regions around the country based on the services and operational data provided by transit agencies in the National Transit Database. Using that data, the FTA then applies the titular “formulas” of formula funds, distributing dollars to urbanized areas (UZAs) across the country.

PSRC serves three UZAs: the Bremerton, Marysville, and Seattle-Tacoma-Everett UZAs. As the Bremerton and Marysville UZAs are each served by a single transportation agency, the local UZA apportionment is simply distributed to those agencies. In the case of the Seattle-Tacoma-Everett UZA, the FTA distributes a lump sum of funds for the PSRC to allocate to eleven transit agencies.

In PSRC’s old distribution strategy, 86 to 88  percent of funds are distributed to each local transit agency in line with the FTA’s standard earned share formulas. The remaining percentage of formula funds was then doled out through regional competitions and preservation set-asides. In practice and in line with historical transportation priorities, this method tended to award agencies and services focused on moving commuters from suburbs to downtowns.

Equity first

For people who cannot afford the high cost of car ownership, access to high-quality transit remains a valuable method to access jobs and services. 

Proposing a new, revised distribution policy, several members of the TPB, including Pierce County Councilman Ryan Mello and Tacoma Deputy Mayor Kristina Walker, pushed for a policy that would prioritize funding to equity focus areas, places where disadvantaged groups are concentrated and would benefit from better transit service. This change would allow PSRC to align their funding allocations with the region’s priorities, using a demographic lens to identify communities most in need of transit access. 

Under the new methodology, PSRC would use federal census data to identify where people in equity focus populations are located, with an emphasis on serving people with disabilities, youth, the elderly, people with low incomes, people of color, and people with limited English proficiency. 

After calculating the number of people in equity focus areas within half a mile from bus stops and a mile from rail stops, and with an adjustment to reflect the nuanced service provided by state and county ferries, the PSRC would proportionally distribute funds to the transit agencies that serve the underserved.

Funding for the new distribution formula comes out of what had previously been used for regional competitions and preservation set-asides. It represents about 14 percent of total funding, seriously boosting agencies serving equity focus areas. For Pierce Transit, the formula change resulted in a funding increase of approximately $9.8 million annually.

Preservation Set Aside Funding (in millions) Percentage of Regional Total* Equity Formula Distribution (in millions)** Percentage of Regional Total
Community Transit $2.20 2.90% $11.70 15.00%
Everett Transit $0.20 0.30% $2.80 3.60%
King County Metro $15.90 21.00% $33.60 43.10%
Pierce.County Ferries $0.20 0.30% $0.20 0.30%
Pierce Transit $1.20 1.60% $11.00 14.10%
City of Seattle $0.10 0.10% $2.50 3.20%
Sound Transit $11.20 14.80% $12.90 16.60%
Washington State Ferries $3.10 4.10% $3.20 4.10%
TOTAL $34.10 $77.90

* Not including regional competition funding

** Includes preservation set asides and former regional competition funding

Seattle-Tacoma-Everett UZA funding distributions changed significantly under the Equity Formula Distribution. Table developed using data provided by Puget Sound Regional Council.

Because these funding changes came out of a limited budget, the council had to make compromises. Since the new formula distributions came out of what had been money for regional competitions, some agencies and projects received less funding than before. 

“Working through the exercise was of great value for folks to actually see, numerically and through mapping, where the equity focus areas are and where they are or are not being served by transit,” reflected Councilmember Ryan Mello, who helped lead the change. 

In the post-pandemic “new normal,” local-level transit that connects people to everyday services maintains vital access for disadvantaged communities.

“We had the ability to have a conversation with the region. We say racial equity is a value—well, here’s an opportunity to put money into it. I had to rustle feathers to make the effort, but it pushed people hard to put the money where your values are, even at the expense of other things.” 

By reorienting funding to prioritize transit equity, while also remaining adaptive to new travel trends, the PSRC’s Equity Funding Distribution can serve as an example for governments and agencies that claim to hold equity at the core of their mission.

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