The Wrong Way to ‘Rescue’ Metro

The King County Executive vetoes the council's magical thinking on bus cuts.
This post is 11 in the series: Metro Matters
King County Metro, facebook

King County Metro, facebook

Parents know how tempting it is to “rescue” a child that’s about to run smack into something unpleasant—to stuff the left-behind homework into a backpack or intervene in tough situations. But this shields them from consequences and sets them up for a painful reckoning when they realize the real world doesn’t work that way.

That’s why King County Executive Dow Constantine’s decision to veto the county council ordinance passed yesterday on a 5-4 vote to delay approving painful King County Metro bus cuts was the grown up thing to do.

It also (hopefully) heads off a return to transit planning in which decisions are influenced by political expediency and the loudest complaints rather than data and transparent criteria that dictate how service should be allocated.

The ordinance passed by Rod Dembowski and the four Republicans on the King County Council would have approved the cuts slated to go into effect this September. But it would have delayed decisions on whether to proceed with the very deep cuts that Metro and the executive have proposed for February, June, and September 2015.

Their well-intentioned argument was that maybe we’ll have more information later that could alter the county’s thinking about how deep the cuts need to be—maybe sales tax revenues will increase more than we think, or maybe yet another round of audits will identify more savings, or maybe we could raise more money some other way. And maybe if the financial picture is better, we won’t have to cut so deeply.

Those are all great things to hope for, and I’m all for continuing efforts to help the agency squeeze more efficiencies out of its operations. But they don’t reflect the current funding situation that needs to be the basis for responsible planning and budgeting. And even if this wasn’t the intent of the council members who supported the ordinance, it sends an absolutely false message to transit users: Maybe some magical solution that has eluded us for many years and doesn’t cost anything will surface in the next few months and we won’t need to cut your route.

The sad fact is that none of the ideas identified a separate motion that passed unanimously Monday, even in combination, appear likely to close the structural funding shortfalls that are plaguing King County Metro and other transit agencies that have already been forced to cut deeply. The agency needs permission to overhaul and create new funding sources, but an intransigent state legislature and suburban voters have refused to allow it to do so.

At a lengthy county council meeting on Monday, people told stories that were difficult to hear about the very real hardships that the proposed cuts will cause. A developmentally disabled employee of the Leschi Market will be physically unable to get to her job when the 27 bus is cut. A female student at Bellevue College will have to walk a route that feels less safe to get to a bus when the 271 no longer serves the campus. Elderly North Seattle residents will have to walk distances that are unrealistic for some of them to negotiate if routes are shifted.

There’s no question that the proposed cuts will have profound effects on real people, and our region’s ability to get employees to their jobs, reduce carbon emissions, curb traffic, and offer people viable choices in how they want to get around. But that is the stripped down and unpleasant truth of where we are right now. And that’s why it is essential to find a long-term, sustainable solution to Metro’s current funding problem.

Those stories also signal a very real danger of the ordinance that Constantine vetoed—that politicians will start meddling in service decisions and cherry picking routes to “rescue” based on complaints from individual riders rather than what makes more sense for the overall system. Things were clearly heading that way, with an amendment from council member Kathy Lambert to preserve several Dial-A-Ride Transit routes in unincorporated King County that no doubt are extremely valuable to some of her constituents but that Metro’s analysis had found to be “low performing.”

For more on this argument, I highly recommend this more detailed piece on the Seattle Transit Blog. But the short version is that Metro has moved away from allocating service based on arbitrary political and geographical concerns (aka the 40-40-20 rule). It now uses a set of objective and at least transparent “service guidelines” that use ridership numbers, density, social equity concerns and geographic connections to determine which areas should receive more or less bus service.

That’s how Metro planners made the tough choices to restructure the service it can afford to provide with current revenue projections. I’ve argued that the public could probably benefit from a better understanding of (and input into) what drives that planning process, but injecting county council politics back into it could lead to haphazard and poorly planned decisions that don’t benefit riders in the long run.

Moreover, holding out hope that routes will be saved—without a concrete plan or money in the bank—does a disservice to people who need to prepare for that possibility, particularly for transit users outside the city of Seattle, which is the only city so far to step up and give voters the choice to raise taxes to preserve local bus service.

Yes, it’s always possible that the financial picture could improve in the next few months and some of the service might be able to be saved. That’s why the four Democrats who were in the minority on Monday’s vote (Larry Phillips, Joe McDermott, Larry Gossett, and Dave Upthegrove) proposed an alternative plan that would have given Metro the authority to start planning for the proposed cuts but left open the opportunity to delay or cancel them if sufficient revenue is actually found.

With his veto—the first since he became county executive in 2009—Constantine has given the council a mandate to come up with a more “responsible and sustainable” solution. Here’s his argument summed up in a press release:

We need a reliable way to pay for bus service – but until then, we shouldn’t spend money we don’t have, we shouldn’t use one-time money to pay ongoing expenses, and decisions to save or cut service should be based on objective criteria and data, not on politics. This ordinance falls short on all counts.

And here’s the more candid quote he gave to the Seattle Times: “Everybody wants to be the person who saves transit. But, sometimes somebody has to be the adult.”

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Comments

  1. Wells says:

    “It hopefully heads off a return to transit planning in which decisions are influenced by political expediency and the loudest complaints rather than data and transparent criteria that dictate how service should be allocated.”

    My loud complaints about purportedly transparent criteria never effect Metro dictates. Trolleybus route arrangements downtown should be restructured. New special hill-climbing low-floor trolleybuses would be most productive. I favor the 5th/4th Aves streetcar couplet option. That leads to a streetcar couplet on Jackson/Main straight to Waterfront and Coleman Dock to start. Then extend to Sculpture Park, Queen Anne and Interbay. 1st Ave would be more completely served with a new trolleybus arrangement and curbside stops instead of left lane, center stations with streetcar. Ignore this contrary perspective as does Metro or refute it based on data and criteria. Bertha must not be repaired/restarted. The Drill-Fill Sea-Fence arrangement is likewise utterly abhorant stupidity and/or criminal incompetence.

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