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Can Metro Transit make the tough calls?

Metro transit bus.

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.

At Pierce Transit and Spokane Transit, tough boards of directors with their systems’ managers are making choices about what route to cut, what route to strengthen, what route to re-align, and engaging their riders in the quest for the best answers.

In addition to the serious fiscal problem, Metro has a big political problem. That’s because existing policy direction — embraced years ago by the King County Council and the Regional Transit Committee for a situation nothing like the current one — is a horrendous shackle on good problem solving. According to the old policy, more than 60 percent of any cut in service hours will come from the Seattle/Shoreline area, where transit patronage is heaviest and transit routes typically are most productive. For political reasons, the cuts will not come from South King County or the Eastside with typically lighter use and less productive routes, and where few areas are suited for the strongest transit performance.

So the big question for the task force is: Where should the cuts really be made and how should new or modified allocation and design of service be structured?

Transit costs taxpayers a lot of money. At the end of the day, taxpayers should get the best possible value for money. The less money there is, the more important is the value equation. It’s a reasonable expectation that cuts would leave the future value equation for every remaining dollar invested in an hour of service at least as strong or, one would hope, even stronger than it is today. Further, if transit is able to get more funding, whether from the state legislature or from voters, it’s a reasonable demand that the system would use every new dollar to show better overall value for money even than given today.

At Pierce Transit and Spokane Transit, tough boards of directors with their systems’ managers are making choices about what route to cut, what route to strengthen, what route to re-align, and engaging their riders in the quest for the best answers. It’s been hard work. No fun. Few thanks.

By contrast, last year Metro’s boards of directors, the King County Council and the Regional Transit Committee, timidly started to try to navigate those same seas. Hardly embarked, and already taking PowerPoint after PowerPoint over the bow, there was a quick shipwreck when the political people couldn’t change their habit of steering Metro’s service issues right into of the well-charted reef called Sub-area Equity. (The concept, which bedevils local planning, dictates that sub-areas, such as the Eastside, that pour tax money into transit get a proportionate share of routes in return, even if transit use is light and inefficient. It’s a poor way to run a bus system or a rail system, but it does make life easier for regional politicians.) That reef seems to lie just below the waves of every regional transportation planning discussion around Puget Sound.

So the politicians called in the task force to do what they couldn’t or wouldn’t do: Make sense of the value equation to strengthen Metro’s claim to deliver taxpayer value, whether Metro was to be poorer, or richer. So far no PowerPoint slide has offered the task force any insights that would suggest ways of doing that.

It can be done.

One obvious approach would be to reach agreement on baseline minimum performance targets, at least as good as today’s performance and one hopes even better, for the average number of passengers who ride the bus for an hour of service and the average sum of passenger miles carried for hour of service. Then design the detailed architecture of the system so that, while meeting those set goals for productivity and cost-effectiveness, the system would achieve the best mix of results on all the other important things everyone wants transit to offer to citizens (such as shaping future growth and focusing density).

But that’s just one approach. It would be very valuable for the task force to see how Spokane Transit and Pierce Transit seem to be so much further along in managing to the future than Metro Transit has been able to do to date. But please just hold it to ten slides and leave time for engaged discussion and some serious digging.

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