Here’s a picture of hundreds of people who crowded into a hearing room Tuesday to protest looming and massive bus cuts at King County Metro. If this looks familiar, it’s because we went through a similar exercise two years ago. This time, if the Washington State Legislature doesn’t grant the transit agency new taxing authority to backfill an immediate $75 million budget hole, Metro says it will begin eliminating 600,000 service hours next fall, or 17 percent of the transit service it currently offers.
So what does that look like? Well, for starters, they would be the largest service cuts in Metro history. About 70 percent of current riders would be negatively affected: Some people will lose bus service entirely, some people will have to walk further to get to a stop, a lot of people’s buses will run less frequently, and a lot of buses will be more crowded.
It would, in short, be a fairly epic change in the wrong direction for a growing county that prides itself on being green and economically savvy yet hasn’t sufficiently agitated for a stable funding source for the very service that efficiently delivers people to their jobs and allows them to do errands without clogging up roads and spewing carbon pollution. Seriously, just spend a minute with this interactive map that shows just how the cuts might go down.
In Seattle, parts of Leschi and Montlake could lose all bus service, as would all of Maury Island and some neighborhoods in Issaquah, Mercer Island, Shoreline, North Bend, Kent, the Sammamish Plateau and dozens of other communities. People who live in Sunset Hill, North Beach, or Vashon Island could find themselves bus-less outside of the morning and evening commutes. On busy routes, more riders (who will likely have just seen their fifth fare increase since 2008) will be stranded at stops while packed buses pass them by.
Forget, for a minute, all the people who rely on Metro to get to their jobs: The architects and biotech scientists and project managers who have access to cars and won’t be shy about using them if buses become too inconvenient, or the people who take Metro from Tukwila or Carnation to get to jobs cleaning hotels and guarding courthouses and staffing parking booths in downtown Seattle. And forget about anyone who, by choice or necessity, gets around the city without a car.
Here’s why everyone else in the region should care: A more anemic Metro system will, without a doubt, make everyone’s life harder. Think about what happens when the Alaskan Way Viaduct comes down, or when bridges to the Eastside need replacing. Construction, or tolls, dump more cars on local streets, gumming up bus routes and making service slower. Getting around by bus starts to become more unpleasant because Metro has just whacked nearly 20 percent of its service and overloaded routes that survived. And the agency has zero money for new investments that could help an ever-growing population to get to jobs and baseball games and Microsoft meetings without considerable hassle.
So what do people do then? They avoid downtown and other congested areas entirely, which is why business organizations like the Downtown Seattle Association and Seattle Chamber of Commerce are lobbying for new transit money. Some will get back in their cars; Metro estimates the service cuts will add 25,000 to 35,000 vehicles to the region’s roads each day. That screws everyone else who’s trying to get around and a regional economy in which businesses depend on things being delivered in a timely fashion.
Oh, and those who don’t have the luxury of hopping back in their cars will just be, well, screwed. Because they’ll be shelling out more money in fares for longer waits and sketchier service. And businesses—from hospitals to law firms to the airport—will have more trouble maintaining a stable workforce.
How did we get into this mess?
In short: More than a decade ago, voters reduced the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax levied on cars and replaced that relatively stable funding source for King County Metro with a portion of sales tax, which now makes up about 60 percent of its operating funds.
But sales tax revenue is volatile, and as the national recession unfolded and people stopped spending so much money, sales tax revenues dropped by nearly 18 percent. That left the transit agency with a $1.2 billion budget shortfall from 2008 to 2015. Until now, the agency has weathered its fiscal cliff without major cuts in overall service (though it did eliminate the downtown free ride zone and made real cuts to many routes last year, that service was actually reallocated to busier routes.)
It has also raised fares four times, spent its reserves, delayed expected service expansions, and negotiated a bigger share of county property taxes. Faced with a similar level of massive service cuts in 2011, the legislature granted the King County Council the authority to approve a temporary congestion reduction charge that raised vehicle fees by $20 for Metro. But that was only for two years until a more permanent solution could be found. That stopgap funding will expire in the middle of next year, and the reserves that Metro has been borrowing from will be exhausted at the end of 2014.
What can we do about it?
King County Metro needs a stable and sustainable funding source, so it doesn’t have to beg for band-aid funding every other year, traumatize its most vulnerable riders with visions of transit Armageddon, and constantly rearrange deck chairs with no new money as it’s asked to cope with major traffic and congestion issues in the region that were not of its making.
In fact, a transit agency that serves the state’s most populous and economically important county actually needs to grow, just to keep up with people moving here.
Here’s what Metro most wants: The state legislature to give King County the authority to levy a new (up to) 1.5% Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET), which would be split 40% for roads and 60% for transit. An owner of a car worth $10,000 would pay $150 a year, and the tax would generate about $85 million for Metro and $55 million for road maintenance.
Right now that MVET option for King County is frustratingly embedded in HB1954, a larger transportation revenue package that puts highway mega-projects ahead of virtually everything else (we and others have enumerated its terribleness here and here). It’s still alive in the special session that just started in Olympia this week, but it’s fate is very much up in the air.
King County could always try again next year, but it would already be deep in the process of eliminating and reducing service. And it would be difficult, if not impossible, to get a new MVET program up and running in time to stave off the first wave of bus cuts. So, how about we save everyone a lot of heartburn and just give King County the opportunity to fix it now? It shouldn’t be so tough for the state legislature to empower the people who live here to decide what kind of transit system they’re willing to pay for.
Here’s what some of those King County residents had to say at Tuesday’s hearing:
This is not a recipe for continued economic recovery. We just got out of the recession. We can’t let this bus service go now. —Kate Joncas, President of the Downtown Seattle Association
We simply cannot allow these cuts to occur, nor can we afford the human and economic costs if the legislature kicks the can down the road to the next session. —Josh Kavanagh, Director of Transportation for the University of Washington
I take the bus everywhere even though I own a car. It’s such an egalitarian thing, just like the library, which I also love. Whether you’re rich or poor or middle class, everyone can ride the bus if they don’t raise the fares too much. But the cuts coming are really immense, especially when you take into consideration that there’s not enough bus service as it is. —Sue Hodes, ESL instructor at Bellevue College
There’s a lot of us who have disabilities that make it difficult to drive and there’s many of us who cannot afford to drive. For us, it’s a matter of losing our jobs. —Siri Schroder, transit dependent South Lake Union resident and banquet server at a Bellevue hotel
I’ve been a bus rider by choice for a lot of years, but now by necessity I am. I use transit to connect me to my grandchildren, to groceries, to meetings like this, to museums and parks, to the symphony. Transit is the difference in my ability to remain a productive citizen in this city —Lois Laughlin, who relies on the following routes that would likely be affected by service cuts: 2, 5, 8, 11, 10, 12, 43, 72, and 16