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    Metro Transit: a chance for good sense to guide service cuts

    The Municipal League, which has pushed for improvements in Metro Transit, thinks King County is poised to move in good directions, getting more efficient and useful in the midst of economic challenges.

    These days many people don't trust government. Congress's reputation is at an all-time low. The Tea Party movement has brought citizens together and inspired them to rise up in protest.  Pollsters tell us that voters are poised to toss out incumbent office-holders. But is the state of government really that bad? What would good government look like if we had it? We believe it would be principled, data driven and compassionate.

    The Municipal League of King County works with and reviews local government all the time and we see examples of excellence in many places.  One example is the work of the Regional Transit Task Force. This is a group of elected officials, stakeholders, and citizens brought together to make recommendations about reforming Metro Transit and helping the King County Council decide how to re-allocate service in this time of deep recession and funding constraints.  Here are some things we have observed with this group that we think characterize government that is working well and doing its job for the people:

    • Significant policy development has been taking place with the participation of a diverse group of thoughtful people.
    • The Task Force has adopted a new paradigm for the agency that applies performance measures, efficiencies and accountability.  Members have asked hard questions of the agency and each other as they developed a framework for changing how transit service is managed and delivered.
    • The financial crisis is being used as an opportunity to fix policies that have outlived their usefulness and inefficiencies that need to be swept away. 
    • The perspectives of individual interests and communities are balanced by a sense of common regional needs and benefits.
    • Entrenched positions and structures have given way to flexibility, compromise and a new realism about what it means to run an efficient transit service.

    The task force has just finished its work and will be presenting recommendations to the County Council next week. Its final report represents a major shift in policy and is being adopted by consensus — that is, all 27 members are in agreement about a new course for Metro. In place of the current service allocation policy based on subareas and on where taxes are generated, the new framework uses factors that are actually linked to transit demand.

    The task force is recommending that service reduction and service growth be based on ridership productivity as this is directly related to job locations, land-use density, and financial sustainability. The task force is also suggesting that social equity and geographic value throughout the county must be considered in any reduction and growth scenarios. This is a rational, fair, and socially minded framework.

    Other task force recommendations urge the use of performance measures, cost controls, and clarity and transparency in communicating results to the public. Finally, the task force looks forward to the longer term and recommends that a more sustainable funding base be developed with the state legislature so that Metro is not so dependent on the ups and downs of sales tax revenues.

    Metro Transit has desperately needed this kind of a makeover for years. Now it may actually be happening. Many details remain to be worked out, and political agreements must still be crafted at the Regional Transit Committee and the county council.  We at the Municipal League are seeing good government in the making and are hopeful that policy-makers will embrace these recommendations.

    During times of abundance, many unwise decisions were made by government, by private businesses, and by individuals. The excesses of consumer debt, Wall Street, and the housing market are now well known. Governments started programs that had no future revenues, built capital facilities that had no operating and maintenance funds, made unsustainable pension promises to workers, and agreed to multi-year wage escalations divorced from revenue forecasts. When the economy fell apart, partisan positions and vested interests began to feud about whose fault it was and what ideology would get us out of the mess weíd made. In some places, it looks hopeless and some of us good-government types at the League might be tempted to despair.

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    Posted Tue, Nov 2, 1:20 p.m. Inappropriate

    Kathy -

    You need to back up a few steps. Your piece does not identify why the managers of the bus and train service providers around here are doing such a poor job. Why is the management of public transit here now performing so poorly in comparison to the peer regions? This regional "Task Force" seems to be ignoring that reality. Moreover, its key "solution" of going to the legislature for more taxing authority would just amount to pouring gas on a fire.

    I'm glad the Muni. League likes what it sees with this Task Force, but you seem to be looking at the wrong things. Just because it has some proposed solutions does not mean it has identified what the problems are. You seem oblivious to that reality.

    Where does this Task Force identify why we are seeing such poor management at Metro and ST? The managers of Metro and Sound Transit are abusing their taxing and other financing practices, yet this Task Force doesn't seem cognizant of that reality. Nor do you, for that matter. You have not alluded to any of the roots of the problem. That means the suggestions for going forward won't solve the underlying problems. Take a hint from how doctors operate: diagnose the disease before offering up medicine.

    We can start with a proposition you “good government” types shouldn’t have any problem with: the less local taxing for transit budgets the better. Want to argue that premise? Disagree with that premise, Kathy?

    The amounts and types of new local taxing for transit is one way to compare how bus and train service providers stack up in terms of serving their respective communities. Compare how well TriMet finances light rail construction and operations (along with its top-quality bus system) to what a lousy job the bus and rail services providers here are doing:

    http://www.trimet.org/pdfs/publications/factsheet.pdf .

    TriMet never has imposed regressive taxes targeting people and individuals. Sound Transit and Metro sure do – they’re worse about that than any of their peers. Here are three differences, and TriMet is doing a far better job in all these areas:

    - Progressive taxing of businesses there vs. heavy regressive taxing targeting families and individuals here.

    - A couple of billion dollars of a reasonable mix of federal grant money and progressive tax revenues used to build out a 50-some mile light rail system there vs. a $100 billion mostly-regressive local tax revenue package to pay for the same number of miles of track, and fewer stations here.

    - $0 direct regressive taxing targeting individuals and families for bus and train service there vs. $455 per year direct regressive taxing on the average family for bus and train service, with that amount growing every year for decades here.

    Why are our circumstances so much worse? That Task Force examined that issue, right? If it didn't, you shouldn't be pimping its upcoming report.


    Posted Tue, Nov 2, 5:49 p.m. Inappropriate

    Notice how the self-identified "good government" group around here also happens to be a reckless tax pimp?

    The muni league is a reckless tax pimp because it advocates for taxing schemes that lack any reasonable taxpayer protection provisions. Examples of true procedural safeguards that would protect taxpayers include taxing amount limits, tax revenue spending limits, bond selling limits, limits on using tax revenue to secure debt, and limits on the number of years various tax rates could be imposed.

    Hey Kathy, why did the muni league endorse ST2 in 2008? Now ST wants to impose scores of billions of dollars of highly regressive taxes, despite the fact that there are NO meaningful taxpayer protection provisions in the relevant state and local enabling legislation. How can you call the muni league a "good government" outfit when you disregard taxpayers' interests completely?


    Posted Wed, Nov 3, 9:07 a.m. Inappropriate

    Apparently Kathy Elias isn't interested in discussing this.

    Anyone associated with the muni league or this "task force" want to explain why taxpayers' interests have been abused by bus and train service providers up to this point, and why this new report calls for making that situation worse?

    From this piece: "This [Regional Transit Task Force] is a group of elected officials, stakeholders, and citizens brought together to make recommendations about reforming Metro Transit and helping the King County Council decide how to re-allocate service in this time of deep recession and funding constraints." Taxpayers are "stakeholders" - why were they not represented on this task force? Why did the task force fail to compare how bus and train services and capital projects are financed here (exceedingly heavy regressive taxing for the most part) with the far better financing practices utilized in all the other peer regions?

    Those are not trick questions. Somebody should try addressing them.


    Posted Wed, Nov 3, 9:25 a.m. Inappropriate

    Go girl! First of all, it is great to see a new woman writer in Crosscut, willing to put her opinion out there. Second, thanks for putting into readable form the conclusions of the task force. The one meeting I attended was so full of words with no meaning I started to giggle: "let's dialogue"...and so on. That's why I'm glad Ms. Elias provided a story. However, I am still not convinced that administrative costs, director's office staffing levels, and productivity have been addressed sufficiently to lead me to support new revenue for the agency.

    Someone should benchmark the salary, vacation, sick leave, retirement, life insurance, and health benefits of Metro employees against those of the users of the system -- that would be enlightening.

    You can tell I'm jealous of the elite squad of county employees. Thus concludes my rant, vent, and rambling.

    Posted Wed, Nov 3, 12:29 p.m. Inappropriate

    How many Metro Riders are Tea Party Supporters?

    Posted Thu, Nov 4, 1:28 p.m. Inappropriate

    Hey, crossrip, I'm taking the bait even though I don't ordinarily talk to people who need to hide behind fake names. Why don't you come out from your hiding place and let everyone know who you are? Embarrassed to be identified with your opinions and screeds?

    I'm not defending Metro management, but it's certainly not their fault that the legislature gave them the sales tax as their funding source. Anti-taxers like you got rid of the MVET which was not nearly so regressive and gave transit a funding base with much more stability than it has now. A policy alternative to the dependence on sales tax would certainly be one positive outcome of a longer term, sustainable funding base that the Task Force says we need.

    The Task Force clearly identified the issues of high operating costs and inadequate transparency and has recommendations that address these. Those are management issues and the new County administration is very definitely working on them.

    Oh and by the way, this had nothing to do with Sound Transit--it's about METRO. Get it? So why you need to take pot shots at ST and a 2-year old Muni League position is beyond me. Irrelevant attacks on the writer and changing the subject are lame ways to conduct civic discourse.

    Posted Fri, Nov 5, 10:08 a.m. Inappropriate

    What’s quoted here is from Kathy Elias’ posting:

    “Anti-taxers like you got rid of the MVET”.

    No, the state MVET was eliminated by the legislature and Gary Locke. I-695 was struck down as unconstitutional.

    “I'm not defending Metro management, but it's certainly not their fault that the legislature gave them the sales tax as their funding source” . . . Oh and by the way, this had nothing to do with Sound Transit--it's about METRO.”

    Part of the problem is the two operate to some extent independently and in a linked manner in other respects. You can’t ignore Sound Transit when discussing Metro’s role in providing regional bus service.

    Of course the legislature is at fault for granting bus and train services providers an aggregate 1.8% sales tax rate in this region. That is an abusively high rate, especially as it is stacked on top of an additional 7.7% sales tax rate. That is a glaring problem setting us apart from the peer regions. You call me an “anti-taxer” – my position is that people are paying the wrong kind of tax, and that individuals and families are taxed far too much for bus and train service.

    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. The task force ignored those fundamental realities.

    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. As to your point, the managements of ST and Metro manifestly are doing a poor job. They get far more tax revenue, and they are unable to deliver bus and train service as efficiently as their peers. Why is that? The new task force didn’t address that issue, and doesn’t seem to care.


    Posted Fri, Nov 5, 11:13 a.m. Inappropriate

    "So why you need to take pot shots at ST and a 2-year old Muni League position is beyond me. Irrelevant attacks on the writer and changing the subject are lame ways to conduct civic discourse."

    I'll tell you exactly why I brought up the muni league's baffling endorsement of ST2 - it was to show how the muni league is not what you call it, a "good government" organization. ST is a government entirely unaccountable to people. People can not implement or change any of its policies by political means. ST's taxing and spending practices are excessive, by a huge margin, when compared to all the peers. The infrastructure ST is supposed to deliver will be of marginal utility, at best. It is not an example of "good government" from the perspective of the people, so the muni league's endorsement of it shows your organization can't be trusted now when touting this task force report.


    Posted Sat, Nov 6, 8:58 p.m. Inappropriate

    Crossrip, if this was a college seminar (I know it's not), either the professor would ask you to let others talk, or everyone else would quit the class. You're taking advantage of an unmoderated forum to dominate the discussion, and it's getting in the way of a good conversation that could happen here otherwise - especially since you are saying the same thing over and over again on multiple article threads. I'm not saying you haven't asked some good questions, but many of them are off topic here.

    Kathy, I think the task force is one of the few bright spots in government right now. It's an exceptional achievement! But I don't believe this success could have been possible without taking the discussion outside of the confines of the county council's chambers. What I take away from this is: when everyone knows a discussion is mired in intractable politics it's important to change the venue and engage some other people. How can the strengths of this process become the norm rather than the exception?

    Posted Tue, Nov 9, 9:42 p.m. Inappropriate

    I agree with urbancharacter. They're right: it would be most enlightening to the taxpayers who foot most of Metro's bills that their "public servants" are getting far superior pay and benefits to themselves. These include the well-publicized annual COLAs with the minimum % plus typically some kind of longevity increase for administrative staff or for miles driven for drivers, probably more %-wise than COLAs of late. The latter is rarely mentioned in the media, and never with any specific number attached to it, but in other words, it means two pay increases per year for everybody until they reach the top of their pay ranges. Add to this health care that probably doesn't have premiums, and that's been with double-digit percentage increases every year to add to our tab. Adding further pressure to the cost is a slowdown in retirements, a.k.a. higher-paid workers being succeeded by lower-paid workers. Supporting this cost structure has primarily been sales taxes, which dropped back to 2005 levels and has been fairly flat, no longer growing sufficiently to support this kind of compensation structure. With unions reluctant to give up what they won in bargaining, and their members comprising perhaps half of all employees, it's no surprise that Metro's as well as many similar entities are in a financial bind. But, this information is generally kept from the public. The most-likely resolution would seem to be to tax something that does consistently grow faster than inflation and/or to have recurring cutback/flexibility with costs so that expenses are always aligned with whatever the revenues are.


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