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Metro Transit giveth and it taketh away, all in one weekend

Bus rapid transit benefits greatly from measures to allow reliable service and speeds. Credit: King County

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.

But here’s the real kicker. What happens when you put the outcomes of the cuts together with the outcomes of the new service additions made in 2010?  The additions include not only Rapid Ride Line A in the South sub-area, but new service in the SR 520 corridor supported by a windfall federal grant.   

Cuts notwithstanding, the total number of service hours for the system as a whole was nearly the same in 2010 as in 2009. The overall result is that neither the East nor the South actually lost service. Overall, they gained. The only sub-area that actually lost overall service hours compared to a year ago was the West, including Seattle — even though that’s where transit patronage in general is heaviest.  

What a strange place to end up! 

We ought to expect better results aimed at getting the greatest value from the transit system — and all the more so when even more cuts are in the offing.   

This is not to say solutions will be easy. Service allocation for a transit system is bedeviled by many competing priorities amongst customer needs; tricky interaction with bus operating efficiencies; and, as illustrated in 2010, by special funding sources for particular services, as in the SR 520 corridor.    

But clearly the first step toward better results is to set aside prescriptive handcuffs like the sub-area service-contraction rules.  

There is a glimmer of hope in the months of discussions by the big stakeholder task force formed to guide Metro’s policy framework. The group, appointed by County Executive Dow Constantine and the King County Council, has been meeting since March. Consensus seems to be emerging that strict formulas like the service-contraction rule make little sense. But recommendations for change will be very general and will put more weight and accountability on the professional planning skills at Metro. Progress also will require the County Council to embrace a new approach, still an uncertain prospect.  

Surely, however, that has to be done before county leaders and transit advocates ask either the legislature or voters to turn the key in the lock that would open new revenues for Metro. 

That’s important because almost everyone agrees that for Metro to avoid really big and painful cuts in 2013-15, voters must be willing to dig into their pockets once again for more transit funding. That’s following the one-tenth of a percent Transit Now sales tax vote in 2006 and the Sound Transit five-tenths of a percent sales tax vote in 2008.  

To attract, in particular, the transit-friendly voters of Seattle to help pass a countywide revenue package, service-allocation policies must serve today’s transit needs — needs that are most heavily concentrated in the West.     

Better service-allocation prospects aren’t the only requirement for a successful vote. A political strategy for new revenue must also demonstrate to voters everywhere in the county that Metro has tackled efficiency and cost issues. One requirement — but not the only one — is a reasonable outcome of collective bargaining over cost-of-living increases for Metro’s drivers and maintenance staff represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union.  

A demonstrably more efficient Metro also means clear and visible progress on route restructuring, cutting costs, and attracting riders — by consolidating or re-arranging low performing routes to offer faster, more frequent and more reliable service. That may not be popular when a neighborhood advocates for routes as they have always known them. With County Council members tending to look askance at potential controversy, Metro has entered neighborhood political thickets very warily.

But changes can pay off — as seen, for example, in the improvements a few years ago to Route 120 on Delridge Way. More work awaits. The Council must lead and support more progress on route modernization.

Tough times are good times for reform. Metro transit service matters a lot not just to its riders, but to all the elements of economic and community activity that transit riders contribute to as a result of convenient and efficient trolley, bus, van pool, and paratransit services.  The questions highlighted by dubious outcomes of 2010 service adjustments are just the beginning of the discussion. 

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