Playing chicken with Metro buses

The bus system threatens to make big cuts, including on popular Seattle routes, if it doesn't get relief in the form of a surcharge on car-license tabs. Suburban members of the County Council balk at helping more transit-friendly parts of the county. Meanwhile, the city is threatening to put its own big ask to the voters for transit on the same November ballot.

Metro Transit accepts ads but decided against controversial ones criticizing Israel.

Metro Transit accepts ads but decided against controversial ones criticizing Israel. Joe Copeland/Crosscut

The scene was the pedestrian equivalent of a rainy rush-hour backup on I-5. Or, a foretaste of lines to come at bus stops around the city, as more and more passengers try to squeeze into fewer, less frequent Metro coaches.

Up to a thousand anxious citizens (by official estimate) queued up to attend last Monday’s King County Council hearing on a two-year, $20 surcharge on vehicle license tabs proposed to stave off sweeping cuts in Metro service. Hundreds filled the council chambers and three overflow rooms. Hundreds more waited outside, where the line stretched out the county courthouse, down Third Avenue, and up Yesler Way.

A large majority (87 percent) of those who signed in to speak urged the council to approve the surcharge straightaway, Tim Eyman be damned, rather than kick it over to a public vote in November. The scene was repeated Thursday night in Burien, when the county’s transportation committee held its only other hearing on the Congestion Relief Charge (CRC), as the surcharge is called in a pitch for motorist support.

Bus supporters still didn’t have enough committed council votes to pass it. The four (unofficially) Democratic councilmembers representing the city of Seattle all endorsed the tab charge from the start. The council’s fifth Democrat, Julia Patterson, who represents Burien and other close-in suburban areas, endorsed it Tuesday, after Monday’s hearing and before she could get lambasted by her constituents at Thursday’s. She said she came aboard after learning something that should not have been any secret — that the charge would restore thousands of hours of bus service in her district.

But the four Republicans on the council, representing cities and rural areas on the Eastside and further south, were still holding out. Much may change by the time the council votes on the CRC this Monday (July 25); some may simply be waiting till they receive enough public pressure to say, “I tried to hold the line on new taxes, but you my constituents made it clear you really want to preserve bus service.” If this minority continues to hold out, however, it will force the measure to the ballot. The legislature, when it authorized the special county tab fee, required a supermajority (i.e. six of nine councilmembers) to pass it outright.

That public vote would trigger a different kind of pile-up on the ballot, jostling another pitch, at once complementary and competitive, from the city of Seattle for a bigger tab charge to aid transit, bikes, and road repairs. The ballot measure would also constitute a dire cliffhanger for a bus system that’s bursting with passengers and starving, thanks only partly to its own inefficiencies, for funds.

The political dynamics bear some resemblance to those playing out in the other Washington over debt limits and deficit reduction. Many who back the CRC most ardently (and who will also back a city tab charge) do so holding their noses at its finances. Rather than piling on regressive flat fees, which disproportionately affect owners of motorcycles and older and cheaper cars, they’d prefer the pre-Eyman
approach, a charge pegged to vehicle value. Or, better yet, more gas tax. But they’re going for what they hope they can get.

As in the debt-limit debate, the stakes are serious, though the circumstances may seem ridiculous: As a region we’re struggling over $60 million worth of bus service per year (the shortfall that the county hopes to plug with the tab charge) while proceeding with billion-dollar light rail lines. Yeah, I know, those are separate budgets, approved in separate votes. Nonetheless, without that money, Metro warns that “up to 600,000 annual service hours, or 17 percent of the current Metro system, could be eliminated.” Even allowing for a scare factor in that forecast (agencies denied funding tend to find ways to do more than they warned they could), the cuts will certainly go deep, at a time when both the system and its riders are already feeling the strain.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jul 25, 8:10 a.m. Inappropriate

As a region we the voters, under the advice of the same leaders who now want to raise more funds to preserve bus service, have set our priorities and are putting billions into light rail that costs about 10x per mile what light rail does in more geologically/geographically friendly settings. I realize that King County cannot move the county's portion of light rail tax revenues to bus service but while our transportation priorities remain so messed up, why should the voters support this band aid? We need a rational rethink of the most cost effective way of providing public transport THEN we need to fund it.

Posted Mon, Jul 25, 9:03 a.m. Inappropriate

There were actually THREE hearings held -- one in each service area. The first hearing was held in Kirkland on July 6th.

Mickymse

Posted Mon, Jul 25, 10:21 a.m. Inappropriate

Raise the 75 cent bus fare called "Regional reduced fare permit' for cardholders. Raise bus fares. Do not tax automobiles and trucks just to further subsidize bus riders and bicyclists. The war on cars must come to an end.

animalal

Posted Mon, Jul 25, 11:14 a.m. Inappropriate

Excellent reporting by Mr. Scigliano – the most informed transit coverage I've seen around here in years – all the more so for its vivid illustration of how the (always treacherous) politicians of both parties have cunningly built a transit-killing bias into the state's taxation policies.

My one editorial criticism is that Mr. Scigliano seems to forget we live in Moron Nation. He leaves the bias itself unidentified, which means we readers will have to think for ourselves just a bit – hardly likely given the national policy of panem et circenses distractions.

Once again though the obvious tax-policy beneficiaries are Big Oil, Big Automotive, the rabidly auto-centric suburbanites plus (of course) the politicos themselves – RepublicRats all regardless of label – who increasingly make no pretense of serving any constituency save tycoons, fat-cats and the country-club elite in general.

Meanwhile a substantial majority of those who live within Seattle's city limits – never mind they're not just pro-transit but fiercely so – face the downsizing of a transit system that, by civilized standards, is barely adequate now.

Yes we have seen it all before in the ongoing destruction of Pierce Transit.

The precincts of Tacoma voted 56 percent for a save-our-transit measure last February. But the transit-is-welfare bigots in the suburbs – and bigots is precisely what they are – flocked to the polls in sufficient numbers to inflict a 54 percent defeat.

As a result, Pierce Transit service is savaged by reductions. The bus bureaucracy says it's “only” a 35 percent cutback, but for the people who were dependent on the 16 eliminated routes, it's a 100-percent loss.

And the (few) buses still running are often too crowded to accommodate disabled people, bag-laden grocery shoppers or mothers with infants in perambulators, all of whom are thus also effectively abandoned: again a de facto service reduction of 100 percent.

This is an outrage, especially to those of us who regard adequate transit as a human right.

Meanwhile the proverbial fix is in – for example the super-majority requirement that effectively prohibits the enactment of county transit taxes – which (exactly as the politicos intended), enables the sneeringly wealthy, smugly auto-centric suburbanites to inflict their socioeconomic hatefulness on everyone else.

Posted Mon, Jul 25, 11:22 a.m. Inappropriate

Eric, I use some of the same buses you do and the closures do seem perverse. It raises suspicions in my mind that Metro is "sending a message" to as many people as possible. That's maybe how they figure to get voter approval but your very good piece does not say much about a major alternative; raise fares. Metro is a bargain now, make it a little bit less of a bargain.

kieth

Posted Mon, Jul 25, 5:20 p.m. Inappropriate

Animalal:

Why must the war on cars come to an end?

busterg

Posted Mon, Jul 25, 8:22 p.m. Inappropriate

And the (few) buses still running are often too crowded to accommodate disabled people, bag-laden grocery shoppers or mothers with infants in perambulators, all of whom are thus also effectively abandoned: again a de facto service reduction of 100 percent

That''s why I bought a Vespa. Never mind the meme about public transportation reducing carbon emissions (it doesn't), I got tired of it taking an hour to get anywhere on the bus. When I was commuting from Queen Anne to downtown Seattle (which only took 20 minutes), it only required two gallons of gas per month. And I was able to park in a corner of a parking garage for free.

As with the NBA, the business model for public transportation in the U.S. (and particularly the State of Washington) is irretrievably broken. David_Smith is absolutely right: instead of continuing to throw money down a rathole, public transportation needs to be rethought. As does the way it's funded.

orino

Posted Mon, Jul 25, 8:50 p.m. Inappropriate

David Smith is a good example of the Cattle Car Theory of Transportation, namely, take out your sharp pencil and calculate the maximum number of bodies you can cram into the smallest space and move them from point A to point B at the absolute lowest cost so we all can save more money for gasoline (or whatever else). There is far more to moving citizens about their public spaces than this simplistic cost-benefit scenario based on a weak utilitarian logic.

I take the Link every day; it is fast, dependable, quiet, smooth, clean. I can read, even write notes in the margins, take a nap, chat with a neighbor. On the Link we don't worry about traffic lights, traffic jams, road maintenance (You don't really believe the Seattle streets will ever be finally repaired, do you?) Try doing that on the #48 Metro; if your teeth arrive at the same time you do, count yourself lucky.

Link respects citizens with disabilities who can board in a wheelchair under their own power, at their own speed, without the beeping stigma of holding up the bus and asking passengers to get up and move. There is something to be said about the quality of transportation in our city, not just the quantity of bodies moved.

Is Link perfect? Of course not. There's still much to do, especially to bring down the costs. But it's much closer to what transportation of citizens should look like than standing in a sweaty bus at the end of your work day for "efficiency."

Bus transit is an accommodation to car culture; the message is: don't change residential patterns, just find ways to get more transit out on the already-existing streets to where people already live so they really don't have to give up their single-family residential place (or single-occupancy vehicle) and eventually can have the option of walking two blocks to a bus stop that effortlessly gets them to their jobs. Won't happen. Let's move on to a new idea.

That pattern of urban dwelling is over and we need to start moving to something else--urban villages around transit hubs.

bkochis

Posted Mon, Jul 25, 10:10 p.m. Inappropriate

The city of Seattle caved in to big oil, big auto (bus) maker and big rubber (the tires) back in late 30s and early 40's. Almost all of the now bus routes in Seattle were once street car lines. The street car company had its power plants and sold the excess power to the surrounding communities.

knlsen

Posted Tue, Jul 26, 9:44 a.m. Inappropriate

As someone who grew up in the suburbs, and used Metro to come into town, I have very powerful memories of the 107 route, timing my 15 minute walk to the bus stop to match the once-an-hour bus schedule, racing to 1st and Pine to catch the last bus of the day to get home again (if you missed it, you had to call your parents to come and pick you up) This was in the early 1970s during the gas crisis -- it was the bus or nothing.

Now I'm a parent of a child in the city, but we still depend on the bus for a big chunk of our transportation. My son rides Metro to school, as do most high school students in the city -- very few of his friends actually drive anywhere. They think of the bus first, when they consider how to get somewhere.

We were very dismayed to see the list of routes that will be curtailed or canceled if Metro can't fill its budget gap -- we use several of them and know many other people who will be affected. I am underwhelmed with the county council's lack of support for Metro, on behalf of the kid I was then, and the kids I know now.

sandik

Posted Tue, Jul 26, 12:25 p.m. Inappropriate

I find it sad that people write about how much they want public transit, but, apparently are not willing to pay for it themselves. Metro fares pay only about 25% of operating costs. Link light rail fares pay only 18% of operating costs.

You like transit so much. Transit is such a great thing. Transit is so important to you.

Then how about you pay for it yourself, instead of sponging off taxpayers?

Lincoln

Posted Wed, Jul 27, 10:01 a.m. Inappropriate

In rebuttal to orino's assertion public transport does not reduce carbon emissions: that's wrong, period.

With buses, it's simple math: one bus, depending of course on its size, can take 40 or more automobiles off the streets.

Hence the formula is X1 (pre-change carbon emissions) minus Y (the emissions produced by the number of cars taken off the streets) plus Z (the carbon emissions produced by the buses), such that X2 equals post-change carbon admissions. Given sheer weight of numbers, X2 will always be smaller than X1.

With electrically powered public transport – light rail, trolleys, trackless trolleys -- the decrease in emissions is far greater, even including the carbon-emissions produced by fossil-fuel power generation.

Meanwhile we here in Washington state are uniquely favored since nearly all our electricity is generated by dams. Moreover, thanks to the New Deal gift of Bonneville, we have the second cheapest electric power in the nation. Only the electricity generated by the Tennessee Valley Authority – another New Deal project – is cheaper.

Here too though we see the infinitely damning hypocrisy of Puget Sound voters. Despite abundant electricity, the voters shackle themselves to buses powered by internal-combustion engines – thus remaining reliably enslaved by Big Oil and Big Automotive. So much for the Evergreen State's claim of unprecedented environmental wisdom: in truth we're at least 40 years behind comparable urban areas in light-rail construction, maybe an entire century behind in use of electric propulsion for mass transport.

Which brings me to bkochis's statement, “Bus transit is an accommodation to car culture.”

Hear, hear! At last somebody else on this site recognizes the infinitely damning truth of Washington state's brazen sell-out to the petro-barons and the automotive lords. Thank you, bkochis; thank you so very much.


Posted Wed, Jul 27, 8:12 p.m. Inappropriate

David Smith,
You're absolutely right that I'm enjoying something that has a time horizon, but my point is that whatever system we design, it can't simplistically be built on the sole principle of efficiency in the present context. We also need aesthetics, reliability, decent treatment of the vulnerable, and, yes, even some pride. That we need more urban villages and more public transport is also absolutely true and, yes, there will be crowded trains. But that doesn't mean we should continue to build more concrete and asphalt roads for buses and cars. The problem was created 50 years ago by the single-family dwelling abetted by the single-occupancy vehicle(s)--notice the 2,3, 4-car families. Trying to fit a bus into that reality is doomed to failure. Leave it to Beaver needs to be left behind; we need to start thinking like a city, not a suburb.

bkochis

Posted Wed, Jul 27, 8:37 p.m. Inappropriate

When reality overtakes what an article says (in this case, the Council postponed their decision to August 15 and there will likely be a public vote anyway), the article should have an update paragraph at the top.

For those of you who think every bus rider should pay full fare, tell me how someone making $10K a year can pay more than $.75 twice a day. For for those who think we should just remake the whole city so that every neighborhood will be a TOD, tell me when that's going to happen and who's going to pay for it.

Until then, we need bus transit, and we need it cheap enough so that people who have low-paying jobs can get to those jobs.

Yes, $10K a year. Think about it.

sarah90

Posted Thu, Jul 28, 9:33 p.m. Inappropriate

David Smith,
You're right again, in the short run. YOU will not use Link, but the the next generation will, not as interested as you were (or me) in a single-family dwelling in a quiet residential neighborhood (the Beaver scenario I referenced). Seattle is urbanizing and that old scenario is fading; trying to hold on to the old transportation system will not work.
You and Sarah90 are also right to point out the impact on the poor and working poor. But that's a policy question about subsidizing transportation for this group (I think it should be included in the EBT system), but not a design question. This might sound strange, but I don't think we should design policy around the poor; rather, we should design policy around where we want the poor to eventually be, and then create policies to get help get them there.
In short, we should not design a transportation system for those of us alive today (we're on the way out), but for the next generation and the one after them. I wish our grandparents had done the same.

bkochis

Posted Fri, Jul 29, 9:07 a.m. Inappropriate

"Light rail in not being built on on the basis of a forward thinking discussion about how society might adapt to increasingly scarce hydrocarbon resources (new energy sources, super-efficient personal vehicles, telecomuting, high speed interurban rail) but rather on the basis of a dogmatic determination to right perceived mistakes of the past, angst and about what the future will bring, and a regressive desire to turn our city into something that matches the European cities that grew in the industrial revolution."

Please. Sound Transit was intended from the get-go as a massive regressive tax grab. It is an unprecedented, shameless transfer of wealth from the poor to a few dozen private entities and several governments. How much tax revenue has it hauled out of this region since 1997 - $7 billion? How are we better off? We aren't. How much tax revenue will it haul out of this region by 2052 (the approximate ST2 financing plan timeline)? $85 billion? That unconscionable financing plan was not designed by the self-interested lawyers who are getting rich off the punishing taxing scheme to further urbanist ideals or correct land use mistakes. They wanted the fees. You're just trying to put lipstick on a pig.

crossrip

Posted Fri, Jul 29, 11:54 a.m. Inappropriate

Ok, I'm 4 paragraphs in to this story, and there are already 2 major errors. I can't even continue without pointing these out to the author. I hope I won't find more.

1 - You write "The scene was repeated Thursday night in Burien, when the county’s transportation committee held its only other hearing..." Prior to the meeting at the Courthouse on July 12, there was a meeting held in Kirkland on July 6. The Burien meeting was the third. It was not the only other meeting.

2 - You write "The council’s fifth Democrat, Julia Patterson, who represents Burien and other close-in suburban areas..." A simple check of the map would show that no part of Burien is in Julia Patterson's district, which includes Tukwila, Renton, Kent, Des Moines, Seatac and a few other areas. Burien is entirely within the district represented by Joe McDermott.

TJ

Posted Sun, Jul 31, 10:21 a.m. Inappropriate

Those who show up at council meetings are not representative of the population at large, so please abandon the notion there is a democratic mandate. Its evident there isnt otherwise proponents wouldnt be hostile to a widespread vote. But lets focus in those inefficiencies.

I for one oppose any increaded funding until these perpetual inefficencies are eliminated: managerial incompetence, labor and retiree costs, and vulnerability to the volitility inherent in global energy markets. It is a farce to witness energy costs rise, people abandon their cars for public transport, and Metro fiscally buckle from demand they cannot meet, despite agressive marketing campaigns to convince the public they can get you there. Ill keep my money, thanks.

Posted Tue, Aug 2, 10:20 p.m. Inappropriate

Bkochis, I'm not sure what you mean about designing policy around where we want the poor and the working poor to "be". Do you mean geographically? Where should they be, other than where they live now? Do you have a good idea about how to get them there? Will there be buses there?

Do you mean economically? Do you have a good idea about how to get them less poor? And do you realize that many of those poor -- my daughter being one -- are disabled and aren't likely to rise in the world economically? Do you realize that many of them are elderly and aren't likely to make any more money than they are now?

The reality is their reality, and possibly yours some day: they need assistance where they are and how they are, not how you expect them to be some day.

sarah90

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