Can Metro Transit make the tough calls?

The big bus agency has got two big problems: nowhere near enough money to meet goals, and a political system that sabotages wise allocations of service. A task force is meeting, but so far it's more PowerPoint slides than real debate.
Not so merrily we ride along. (Chuck Taylor)

Not so merrily we ride along. (Chuck Taylor)

The What-Is-To-Be-Done 31-member stakeholder task force on Metro Transit’s future holds its second meeting, again at the Mercer Island Community Center, this Thursday night (May 13). Is this another exercise in endless process, or one where leaders are going to make some tough decisions stick?

Flying-high PowerPoints, not hard, grounded, data-driven analysis, often seem to be the prevailing medium for framing supposedly critical analysis. Little other than PowerPoint thinking so far is in evidence at the task force. Content-less bullets and undecipherable graphs and pie charts don’t build a platform for decision-making.

At the last meeting on April 20, Metro’s 77th (and last) PowerPoint slide announced to the eyes-glazed-over task force the major reason this task force exists: Metro Transit is in a really tough financial predicament. By 2015 the intersection of Metro’s declining revenues and rising costs will force it to slash, according to the slide, 600,000 annual hours of service. That’s big: a sixth of the current level at 3.6 million annual hours of service. And beyond that projected cut there are another 400,000 hours of service that were supposed to be added from now to 2015 and were promised in the Transit Now package; that won’t be happening.

At tonight’s task force gathering, Puget Sound Regional Council staff, in the 23rd of its 28 PowerPoint slides, will suggest that the new PSRC Transportation 2040 plan presupposes regional spending on transit of $100 billion in the next 30 years (that includes Pierce, Snohomish, and Kitsap counties, too). Of that figure, $40 billion will be spent by Sound Transit, while $57 billion is to be spent by the bus agencies, according to the PowerPoint. That $57 billion will ostensibly pay for what the agencies now do and yield above that (over the next 30 years) a 100 percent peak period increase in bus transit services in all four counties.

That would seem to suggest a reassuring long-term prospect. But wait. PSRC fine print not in the PowerPoint shows that $52 billion of the $57 billion to be spent by the bus agencies for their plans is just to keep paying for what are called their basic needs, leaving only $5 billion to finance expanded missions.

This brings us to the really bad news, also in the PSRC fine print and also not in the PowerPoint. Current taxing and fare-collecting arrangements leave the bus transit systems $13 billion (more than 22 percent) short of the proposed $57 billion 30-year spending for the plan. That gap in the plan is nearly three times as large as the wished-for allotment for expansion.

Sound Transit? Same problem. Current funding prospects are short $7.5 billion below its spending needs built into the Transportation 2040 plan, a 20 percent shortfall.

That’s a double-whammy adding up to a distinctly dire long-term picture for the transit systems. For transit, you can’t make enough PowerPoint slides to paint the new Transportation 2040 plan aspirations as a realistic portrayal of future expectations. Not without a plan for massive infusion of new funding that’s now nowhere in sight.

If no solace can be taken by the task force or anyone else from PSRC’s rosy-future visions, everyone around Metro — the riders, the workers, even the 31 task force stakeholders noodling its future — can find plenty of company in misery. The crisis of rising costs and falling revenues staring Metro in the face is a national transit epidemic. Leading Western transit systems prominently on the cusp include Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Orange County, Sacramento, and Denver. In our state the list includes C-Tran in Vancouver, Pierce Transit, Community Transit, Spokane Transit, and more.

But the issue is particularly important in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area, including the Metro service area and especially Seattle. We’re not like lots of other places. Here, bus transit is an especially big part of our transportation system. A study published just last week by the Brookings Institution ranked the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas by the percentage of commuters not driving alone in their cars to work. Here, by bus, by vanpool, by carpool, by bicycle, by foot, by ferry, by whatever, over 30 percent of commuters were getting to work in 2008 in some other fashion than by jousting for highway space one lonely driver in a car against another. In the top five we’re in rare company with New York, the San Francisco area, Honolulu, and the Washington, D.C. area. Metro performs. Transit matters.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Thu, May 13, 6:37 a.m. Inappropriate

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Matthew 7:3

Jan

Posted Thu, May 13, 8:19 a.m. Inappropriate

All new buses must be built to accommodate light rail!

I don't know what that means, but it sure sounds like a Seattle type of answer.

dbreneman

Posted Thu, May 13, 8:48 a.m. Inappropriate

Those PowerPoints that MacDonald refers to are all posted at http://ow.ly/1JoB7 as well as the agenda for the meeting tonight May 13.

jniles

Posted Thu, May 13, 9:33 a.m. Inappropriate

As usual, fine piece of work, Doug. I especially like the second-to-last paragraph ... as succinct a statement as I've seen of what could be at least a beginning point for the performance-measure discussion.

Years ago, I had the privilege of serving a (very) brief stint as staff to the suburban members of the RTC, thus becoming aware of the various prisms through which one could allocate transit service ... or endlessly complain about it. What a statistical wasteland.

Here's hoping the task force at least moves the ball forward. Agree, Doug, that a lot rides on what information is presented, how it is presented, and how the discussion is facilitated. Tough stuff.

Deb Eddy

Posted Thu, May 13, 9:50 a.m. Inappropriate

It's really, really, really, really simple.
How about Metro charging enough at the farebox to cover its costs?

And to provide a social safety net for lower income folks, allocate money from appropriate social services budgets rather than having Metro act as a social service agency.

And to go really radical, provide consumer services on the buses, including internet access, music, videos, private seats at a cost, newspapers, food, lunch, breakfast, etc. Additional sources of revenue are a good thing for revenue, and consumer goods and services are good things for a consumer.

And we should absolutely add 24/7 surveillance video by on all buses continuously monitored by appropriate police depts for criminals, crazies, etc. On many routes there's a fear factor that comes into play that should be eliminated. There's also an exporting and importing of crime that occurs by bus that local police forces would do well to address.

Stuka

Posted Thu, May 13, 10:47 a.m. Inappropriate

King County government, and by extension the regional governance superstructure in which it participates with other municipalities, are all constructed along tried-and-true feudal principles. The entire agglomeration is built up out of semi-independent feudal fiefdoms that negotiate with one another and with the central executive authority to conclude mutual support arrangements based on tit-for-tat tradeoffs. What this means of course is that nobody gives up more than they have to, and commitment to an overarching central purpose receives little more than lip service. Since the term "feudalism" lacks panache, euphemisms such as "sub-area equity" have been devised to create a necessary patina of intellectual respectability.

What is surprising is how pervasive this system is. Needless to say, in the absence of a state-mandated centralized structure, regional governance institutions are intrinsically feudalistic -- the components are in fact semi-independent entities. Within county government itself, district-based legislative elections entrench the feudal approach. But even among King County executive departments the feudal model prevails. I remember observing this in the early 90s in a county land use hearing where WSDOT was seeking permits to build part of its new SR 520/202 interchange complex within the newly mandated stream buffer for Bear Creek. An idea came up about creating some greater flexibility in a tight space by encroaching a few feet into the northern fringe of Marymoor Park -- an unused area removed from park activity and inevitably burdened by its roadside location.

Since this was already county land, it seemed like a reasonable suggestion. But the county parks department leadership was incensed by the idea, even though it was coming from other county departments and involved an inessential scrap of property. For them then issue was not the feasibility of the proposal but the uninvited intrusion into their domain, which they perceived as an attack on their feudal prerogatives.

On the bright side, a fiscal crisis can offer an opportunity to reshape the governance environment, if we have the courage to seize it. The feudal system only only produces acceptable results when a surplus exists sufficient to buy off all the fiefdoms and still accomplish the central goal (the new federal health care plan also operates on this assumption). As McDonald suggests, Metro no longer has the luxury of serving its core mission of moving people efficiently while continuing to hew to the politically-inspired feudal constraints of "sub-area equity". The issue will need to be addressed head-on.

woofer

Posted Thu, May 13, 11:11 a.m. Inappropriate

From the piece:

“The crisis of rising costs and falling revenues staring Metro in the face is a national transit epidemic.”

We face a unique problem here though: excessive regressive taxing for transit. People in this neck of the woods are taxed far too heavily for bus and train service.

Was any information presented to these “stakeholders” about why that is? I doubt it.

Regressive general taxing only should be used for transit in modest amounts. That is how all the peer bus and train service providers do it?

In terms of taxing practices, Metro and Sound Transit perform horribly. Taxing for transit around here is excessive and far too regressive. Those targeted by the 1.8% sale tax for bus and train service are the economically disadvantaged and poor families. People are getting shafted – it is taking food off the tables of poor families. It also acts as an economic anchor on the region, by depressing consumer spending and curbing small business job growth. Why are Metro and Sound Transit so abusive when it comes to raising revenues?

Transit services providers in other regions do very well with far more modest levels of taxing and bond selling. There’s no reason this region should be any different. The only local taxing for transit should be in line with what the peers haul in, and it should not exceed what’s needed for reasonable operations and capital costs. But that’s not what Metro and Sound Transit do.

Metro, Sound Transit, and the transit governments in Pierce and Snohomish counties expect to haul in something on the order of $1.3 billion in local tax revenue this year, the vast majority of which will be sales tax revenue. All their peers do a great job providing good bus service and expanding train systems for their people and businesses with far less annual local tax revenue:

- TriMet (Portland) - $233 million;

- DART (Dallas/Fort Worth) - $385 million;

- San Diego Metropolitan Transit System - $100 million; and

- RTID (Denver) - $241 million.

There is no good reason for this discrepancy.

A reasonable estimate of the local taxing this year on the average family of 4 in the 91% of King County that also is in the ST district is about $450. That is far higher than any place else. For example, there is no sales tax, car tab tax, or property tax imposed by TriMet. That Portland-area peer doesn’t target people and families with transit taxes at all, unlike here where “more is better” when it comes to heavy, regressive general taxes. Instead, the only local taxing TriMet does is impose a progressive tax that causes a negligible financial impact on employers. That modest tax impacts the biggest employers the most.

Too much tax, and the wrong kind of taxing, are the defining characteristics of how transit around here is paid for. Why are the peer regions taxing so much less for transit, and using less regressive taxes? That is relevant information the public (and this stakeholders group) should have. We need to learn from transit financing practices elsewhere and improve what is going on here.

Anyone want to try explaining why there is so much more transit taxing here than in the peer regions, and why it is so regressive? Is it simply that the political leadership holds people and poor families in contempt?

crossrip

Posted Thu, May 13, 8:15 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree with Doug. My impression is that they're trying to saturate the committee with information, much of it that isn't relevant, coupled with most members likely not even being regular transit riders. I'd rather see someone "out of the box," such as the recent performance auditors, providing them with background on the key issues, then concepts, with a robust discussion to follow. After all, the committee only has a few months, with meetings every 3 or 4 weeks @ 2-1/2 hours per, to come up with recommendations! "Woofer" has described the fiefdoms well, and each of the transit agencies is protecting their share of the turf, which is why they're the wrong ones to be fixing the problems. I disagree with Stuka, it's not really, really simple. Fares would have to approximately quadruple to recover 100%. I doubt you'd find many people who'd go from paying $5/day to $20/day to take a crowded bus. Instead, they'd be flocking to the freeways, whose drivers are subsidized as well (general funds are used to cover what the declining gas taxes are inadequate for, and they aren't in proportion to miles driven, while ~7% of us don't own a car!). On the other hand, express service should command a premium over local service. And, where service is offered should be related to tangible productivity measures, i.e. number of riders is a poor measure, while number of riders per bus is a better measure, and if you know where those riders are getting on and off (requires automatic passenger counters) can help towards cutting unproductive segments of routes, and not by the flawed 40/40/20 that works against the region. Even using smaller vehicles might work! Keep writing, Doug, we're fortunate to have someone of your background continuing to be writing.

bricsa

Posted Thu, May 13, 10:22 p.m. Inappropriate

Mr. MacDonald and others are taking the '40-40-20 subarea equity' bait, just as KC wants. Sub-area equity is irrelevant. It's a distraction. What is relevant is that Metro costs 20% more than it should and that we don't have the will to fund Metro to meet demand. I hope the RTTF can address both.
RTTF and RTC member and local elected official

Posted Thu, May 13, 10:49 p.m. Inappropriate

That last sentence, abcs, is an understatement.

The same spoon feeding that Doug reports is familiar to any one "privileged" to serve on an advisory group in the last 20 years. Ironically, It came in with the Growth Management Act. Don't ask me why.

I do know that one has to go clear back to the Seattle 2000 Commission to find clear headed people with no qualms about taking charge. The impetus was Model Cities—Johnson's paux pas organizing that skipped over local governments making them mad as hell and necessitating less and less mention, aka, the dusty shelf treatment to neutralize Goals for Seattle 2000. A treatment, BTW not just reserved for popular manifestos: the same thing has been occurring with Toward a Sustainable Seattle—A Comprehensive Plan for the City of Seattle even as it is annually updated, generally with current dogma to replace the original clarity of purpose.

Someone, I've lost track of who, wrote just the other day: people can not take transit that does not exist. Re-enter realism? Not without the arrival of spunk. Doug is alert in identifying this commission as a critical place to encourage it.

And thanks Jniles, that public information link will now go less unused. Here is another new, vital commission sifting through Power Points: http://www.seattle.gov/trees/UFcommission.htm

afreeman

Posted Fri, May 14, 1:50 p.m. Inappropriate

Crossrip has an interesting point. Where does all the transit money go in the Puget Sound? Why does it take five times more money to operate transit in the Puget Sound then it does elsewhere in the country? Sounds like a good research project for someone at PSRC.

Posted Fri, May 14, 1:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Sub-area equity is not just feudalism and it should not be sacrificed because of tough budget times. For years, King County residents outside the City of Seattle paid for a Seattle-centric bus system that provided few benefits to those who didn't work or live in Seattle. The Metro Council was dominated by Seattle elected officials and their appointees, and the Metro staff knew how to count votes. Although I didn't support the merger with King County, the County Council is a more representative body for the Metro service district than was the old Metro Council. With the hard-won policy of subarea equity, we're finally seeing successful bus service in suburban areas that have just as much density as many of Seattle's neighborhoods, like Northgate, West Seattle, NE Seattle, to name a few. If Seattle wants a bigger piece of the pie, let City residents pay a their fare (sic) share.

policymom

Posted Fri, May 14, 9:22 p.m. Inappropriate

The "tough cuts" aren't cuts to service, but cuts to bloated, redundant, overpaid supervisors and administrators not only at Metro, but throughout the King County Department of Transportation and County Government as a whole.

Read about The $100K club at the Puget Sound Transit Operators blog: http://pstransitoperators.wordpress.com/2010/04/09/the-100k-club/

Posted Wed, May 19, noon Inappropriate

Get rid of the ride free area downtown. Collect fare box revenue each time someone gets on the bus. If they don't pay, they walk. Reduced demand for transit in the ride free area would increase the amount of capacity that would be available in other areas. It might also improve the experience of riding a bus in the downtown core, which might increase use.

sean98125

Posted Thu, May 20, 6:52 a.m. Inappropriate

I could have told you this process was off on the wrong foot the minute I saw who was appointed to the panel. From the press release in February, "The geographically balanced 28-member task force...". Need I say more.

bgtothen

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »