Tomorrow is Saturday, Oct. 2, the day that Metro Transit will both giveth and taketh away. We'll get good news and bad from one of the top ten largest transit systems in the country — and far and away the largest in the state.
More than 100 million times a year, someone gets on a Metro trolley or bus. Another 3.5 million trips are taken each year in Metro’s vanpools, the biggest — and universally recognized as the best — vanpool program in the country.
Good news first. On Saturday, Metro fires up its long-awaited entry into a form of service that has proliferated, really, across the globe: bus rapid transit. On Rapid Ride Line A, 16 new buses will run almost a hundred times a day in each direction on Pacific Avenue South between Federal Way and Tukwila, connecting a string of big transit destinations, including, for example, Highline Community College and Sea-Tac Airport.
There are five more Rapid Ride lines to follow Line A:In 2011, Bellevue to Redmond on Bel-Red Road; in 2012, West Seattle to downtown and Ballard to downtown; and in 2013, Shoreline to downtown (upgrading the storied Route 358), and a route connecting the Burien and Renton Transit Centers.
Line A should soon build a ridership of 2.5 million a year, attracted by curbside bus arrival information, signal prioritization to clear buses through intersections, on-board Wi-Fi, and more convenient fare paying. Travel times will be 30 percent faster than on the workhorse Route 174 that Line A will replace.
Bus rapid transit is a big part of the service improvements promised in the successful 2007 Transit Now vote, which added a tenth of a cent (a dime on a hundred-dollar purchase) to Metro Transit’s share of sales tax revenue. And Rapid Ride is very cost effective: just $17 million in Metro capital outlay, and a smart use of the HOV lanes that the state and cities have been putting in place on Pacific Avenue South.
Rapid Ride Line A is something Metro deserves to crow about. Rides Saturday and Sunday on the new buses will be free.
Now the bad news.
Saturday also is the day for regular fall-season schedule revisions, and those are resulting in service cuts elsewhere in the system. On the very launch day for Rapid Ride Line A, cuts on other routes will complete the shaving in 2010 of 50,000 bus service hours, about 1.5 percent of the 2009 total.
The service cuts come from the recession’s battering of Metro’s sales tax revenues. The trouble really began in 2008. New projections issued two weeks ago show revenues sliding still further into the tank than anticipated even earlier this year. It’s the same kind of crisis for Metro as for virtually every other public enterprise. With red ink running into hundreds of millions of dollars, Metro services are more extensive and expensive than its new-reality budget can sustain.
Transit systems across the country are largely in the same fix. Tri-Met, the big bus and light rail-system in Portland, for example, made cuts to 50 lines on Sept. 5, including outright discontinuation of under-used bus lines and longer waits between trains on its light-rail system.
Closer to home, Sound Transit’s board of directors last week heard staff proposals to delay many projects and scale back the expansion of Regional Express bus services from those promised in the Sound Transit plan approved by voters in 2008. Sound Transit buses serving commuters from the suburbs carried about 6.3 million passengers in the first six months of 2010 (more than last year, but below target). Community Transit in Snohomish County earlier this year axed Sunday service.
The big problem at Metro is not the scale of this year’s cuts. Fifty thousand hours are only a small harbinger of what’s predicted eventually to disappear, and these first cuts were directed to relatively low patronage services before more highly-used services will have to go on the block.
The problem is the manner in which the cuts this year were made.
That cut methodology brings us to the baroque world of something called sub-area equity, a political cosmology virtually unique to King County transportation policy.
Sub-area equity is a credo-like framework that underlies much of the direction given to Metro Transit managers by the King County Council. The mantras of sub-area equity are easy to incant, difficult to define, elusive to justify, and wrapped in long-running debates of transit and county politics. The rules result in Metro often structuring services not for a unified system benefiting King County as a whole, but as if the county were three distinct fiefdoms: the South County sub-area, the Eastside sub-area and the West sub-area, which includes Seattle, Shoreline, and Lake Forest Park.
In the County Council’s sub-area equity rulebook, any budget-related service contraction at Metro must be pro-rated in each of the sub-areas to the precise proportion of the trolley/bus running hours operated in each area.
The West, or Seattle, sub-area has the largest share of service hours (62 percent). Understandably, given Seattle’s density of residents and jobs, the West’s level of rider use is the highest of the three areas. Its routes therefore encompass a larger share of the riders than of the service hours.
Patron use in the West is markedly higher, in particular, than on the Eastside, which has the least transit-supportive land use, despite important growing transit markets oriented to downtown Bellevue, Redmond, and Kirkland — as well as commuter services to many areas of Seattle. The East has 17 percent of the service hours but less than 10 percent of the riders. The balance of the service hours (21 percent) are in South County; it falls midway between West and East in the intensity with which its services are actually patronized.
With its latest cuts, Metro managers followed the pro rata formula and therefore cut 31,000 service hours on 50 West sub-area routes; 10,500 hours on 34 South sub-area routes; and 8,500 hours on just 18 routes in the East sub-area.
Because patronage in the sub-areas is not distributed the same way as the service hours, whacking routes in the West did proportionally higher damage to West riders than to others.
Indeed, some routes that were untouched by the cuts and will still operate in the East, and to a lesser extent also in the South, have lower ridership than terminated routes in the West.
According to Metro statistics, three-quarters of the riders who suffered moderate or greater impacts to the convenience of their transit use from the 2010 cuts were in the West, including Seattle. The Eastside cuts were to routes so lightly used that, of all the riders with significant loss to their transit convenience, only 5 percent were Eastside riders.
Rules of the game that generate such outcomes aren’t very attractive now, when we should be stretching the value of the taxpayers’ dollars. (Over 70 percent of Metro’s operating costs are drawn from sales-tax revenues.) Indeed, by preserving bus routes with lower ridership over those that are more fully used, Metro is heading toward an even greater per-rider cost.
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