(Page 2 of 3)
Metro’s ridership rose headily from 2003 through 2008, in pace with the rising economy, traffic congestion, and gas prices, from about 90 to 118 million boardings per year. It fell a total of 7 percent in 2009 and 2010, as gas prices sagged, the economy slumped, and Metro closed some routes to defer to the new Sound Transit light rail line. Fewer people had jobs to get to or money to spend on discretionary trips — especially after four adult fare increases, totaling 80 percent, in four years.
Now Metro's ridership is ticking back up; the bus-transit agency reports a 4 percent rise in boardings in the second quarter over last year, and a 6 percent jump June-to-June. That may be a hopeful economic indicator, though rising gas and parking costs also play a part. It’s certainly more load on a system slammed by a big loss in sales tax receipts, which are far from recovering.
To fill the gap absent the car-tab boost, Metro threatens to eliminate about 85 routes, reduce or alter service to 115 more, and leave just 40 unscathed. Those to be cut include some of the highest-performing in the system, according to an official formula based on number of riders, the average distance those riders travel, and the share of operating costs paid by the farebox. These high-performing victims are all in Seattle: Route 4 from Judkins Park to Queen Anne, the 72 and 73 to the U-District, and the 18 to Ballard (though it would be replaced by upcoming bus rapid transit). During peak hours the Queen Anne leg of the 4, for instance, pencils out better than any route in the system; its farebox covers 71 percent of operating expenses, nearly triple the system average.
The rationale for cutting such highly efficient routes: They duplicate or shadow other routes, and so are relatively dispensable. Indeed, public-transit scourges such as the conservative Washington Policy Institute’s Michael Ennis, in this Times op-ed, contend that the threatened cuts would largely just eliminate “redundant,” “inefficient,” and “low-productivity” routes. But there’s often less to these terms than meets the eye, or fits in a tendentious op-ed. For example: At its north end, on Queen Anne, the 4 bus follows mostly the same route as the 3; where it diverges it runs just three blocks from another route, the 13. But at its south end the 4 provides unique service to Judkins, a less transit-favored neighborhood than Queen Anne.
Likewise, the popular Route 2 across the spine of Queen Anne, which is also proposed for elimination, parallels the 13, six blocks to the east, and the 10, four blocks to the west. I’ve played this system, flitting between the various routes according to which bus comes next. But a steep slope makes the 10 inaccessible to many hilltop residents, and, faced with walking a third of a mile farther to catch the 13, some would choose to drive instead. Out of many such efficiencies, downward spirals are made.
Most important, nearly all the Queen Anne routes are packed at peak hours. Eliminating some would mean adding buses to others, or turning away riders. And this peak-hour congestion would only be worsened if Metro adopted another measure Ennis urges: raising off-peak fares to peak levels. Peak loads determine bus size and system capacity (which in turn leave non-riders grumbling about buses running near-empty late at night). If anything, Metro should boost its congestion-pricing differential, now just 25 cents, to nudge more riders away from peak hours (though employers, not the workers riding the buses, generally determine those hours).
“Low productivity” is also a fraught term. Transit planners are bound by two discordant goals: providing efficient, cost-effective service, and providing service everywhere. The proposed cuts balance these considerations, but it’s always a messy, imperfect judgment. Suburban routes, with their greater distances, sparser populations, and lower ridership percentages, are much less cost-efficient than urban ones. Metro grades them on a curve: To be judged “high performance,” Seattle routes must (depending on time of day) cover 40 to 120 percent more of their expenses from fares than “high performance” Eastside routes. Suburban taxpayers may resent subsidizing
urban buses, but urban riders are also propping up suburban routes.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!