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

King County Metro bus.

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.

But here we see smart, thoughtful people doing what is right.  The members of the Regional Transit Task Force spent seven months of evenings wrestling with arcane facts about route productivity, housing and employment density, service types, cost efficiency, and financial sustainability.  The work is not yet done and as a region we may yet fail to reach the goal, but we see people setting aside old ways of thinking, making tough decisions and developing smart new policies.

We see other similar efforts at good government throughout the region. King County has launched a reform effort that calls for improved customer service, greater efficiency in delivering services, and performance-based budgeting. Cities throughout the county are reevaluating programs, services and priorities.  Regional agencies like Sound Transit are figuring out how to deliver programs with revenues shrunken by 25 percent. It’s easy to be cynical when we see politicians acting partisan and refusing to take responsibility for governing. But if we look around we can also find plenty of examples of good government at workógood policies being crafted by people who care about getting it right, services being delivered well, and citizens being listened to and involved.  

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