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No silver bullets among last ditch efforts to stave off bus service cuts

Passengers board a bus at the Burien Transit Center. Credit: Bill Lucia

When the 139 bus pulled out of the Burien Transit Center last Thursday around 3 p.m. it was carrying one passenger. As the bus rumbled down Fourth Avenue SW, another rider boarded — a woman who was getting ready to move to the area from Florida.

The bus passed a worn sports field where kids kicked up dust as they played soccer, looped through the Highline Medical Center campus without picking up anyone, and then continued west on SW 160th Street, passing single family homes, with mowed lawns, flower bushes and driveways.

A total of five passengers rode the bus during its 4.5-mile route, which passes through Gregory Heights, a neighborhood in Burien located just west of the Seattle Tacoma International Airport. Ray Lugo boarded shortly after the bus turned onto 21st Avenue SW. He uses the 139 to commute. "If it wasn't for the bus, I wouldn't be able to get to work," he said. "I don't have a car."

Another rider, Nancy O'Reilly, got on board a few stops later as the bus continued north on 21st Avenue SW toward SW 152nd Street. O'Reilly said she and her neighbors in a senior community use the bus for trips to the grocery store and the medical center.

"No one on 21st can walk to stores or the doctor's," she said.

This fall, Lugo and O'Reilly will likely need to find a new way to get around. The 139 is on the chopping block. King County Metro Transit has identified the bus line as one of its lowest performing routes and the agency has proposed eliminating it in September as part of an effort to offset an ongoing budget shortfall of up to $75 million.

A Metro bus pulls away from the Burien Transit Center last Thursday. Photo: Bill Lucia

Metro has recommended to the Metropolitan King County Council a total reduction of 550,000 annual service hours to make up for the funding gap. King County Executive Dow Constantine recently sent a proposal to the council that would phase in the elimination of 72 bus routes and service revisions or reductions on another 84 lines over the course of a year. The first round of cuts would take place in September. Three additional rounds of service reductions would be scheduled for February, June and September of next year.

As the clock ticks toward September, elected officials are scrambling to put forth proposals that would stave off some of the service cuts, but a long-term solution to the agency's financial woes remains elusive.

"We’ve heard again that the proposed cuts will really have a devastating effect on people who rely on transit to get to work, to get to school and to get to the hospital," Rod Dembowski, chair of the County Council's transportation committee, said as he summed up comments made during a recent round of public meetings about the service reductions. "We’ve also heard that we should considering raising fares for those who can afford it."

In one of the latest moves to save bus service, Dembowski plans to introduce a motion at a transportation committee meeting on Tuesday that would call on Constantine to recommend a bus fare increase, the elimination of Metro's paper transfer system and new pricing models. He said those changes could enable Metro to generate between $17 million and $20 million in additional revenue annually.

He emphasized that some of the changes would not go into effect until after a low income fare reduction policy is put into place, which is set to happen next March.

The motion would also call for an outside auditor to conduct a top-to-bottom review of Metro's finances to look for $10 million to $20 million in new annual cost savings. Metro's capital spending and financial reserve policies would also be re-examined.

Metro officials say that in recent years they have made deep cuts and increased the agency's efficiency.

"I think what’s being misunderstood is that we’ve spent six years managing through a recession, managing through a structural financial gap," said Victor Obeso, Metro's manager of service development. "We’ve used our reserves, we’ve used the temporary congestion reduction charge."

The congestion reduction charge is a $20 fee that King County residents have paid since June 2012 when renewing their vehicle registrations. The fee will no longer be charged after the end of this month.

"We simply don’t have the revenue going forward," Obeso said, "to keep the system going the way it is today."

While Obeso said that raising fares is a partial solution, he also noted that Metro recently raised prices during four consecutive years. During that time, adult fares, he said, went up 80 percent and are getting "toward the higher end of the U.S. transit industry."

Fares shown are local, off-peak adult prices and do not include multi-zone, regional or express trips. In Dallas, a single DART fare is valid for two hours. Cities included are the ten largest in the nation based on 2012 Census estimates. Chart: Bill Lucia

Over 90 percent of Metro riders are car owners, according to Obeso, and at some point, if fares get too high, he said that they would drive rather than take the bus. A commuter using Metro bus service five days each week for a two-zone trip, between Bellevue and Seattle for example, pays an average of nearly $1,300 in annual fares, Obeso said.

"There’s definitely a balance between raising fares and raising revenue," he said.

In Dembowski's view, there is still room to push that balance toward higher fares.

"It's still a steal of a deal to ride Metro," he said. "Those who can pay more, I’d rather have them pay more than do the cuts that are proposed."

Adult peak fares are currently $2.50 for a one-zone trip and $3.00 for a two-zone trip. Off-peak adult fares are $2.25. All of Metro's fares will rise by $0.25 in March of next year. At that time, the low income fare policy should also go into effect, which would set the price for a bus ride at $1.50 for riders with incomes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

While it is up to Constantine to propose fares, Dembowski said that one option for raising extra revenue might be a $0.25 hike on peak fares in 2015 and an overall increase of $0.25 in 2016. The hikes would be in addition to the fare increase slated for next March.

Dembowski's motion will come on top of other recent proposals to bolster Metro's finances.

In an effort to save some of Seattle's service from getting slashed, Mayor Ed Murray has proposed putting a measure on the November ballot that involves raising money with a new $60 vehicle license fee for Seattle car owners and a 0.1 percent city sales tax increase.

The Mayor's Office estimates the proposal could raise $45 million annually that would be used to prevent over 90 percent of the "projected impacts" of the cuts on city riders. Up to $3 million of the money would be placed in a Regional Partnership Fund, which would help pay for routes that run in and out of the city limits at peak commuting hours. About $2 million would be used to pay for programs designed to help offset the effects of the new taxes and fees on low income residents, including a vehicle licensing fee rebate.

The plan mirrors Proposition 1, a ballot measure that county voters shot down in April. That measure also included a $60 vehicle licensing fee and a 0.1 percent sales tax and would have also funneled some of the new revenue to pay for roadwork. Proposition 1 received much stronger support within Seattle than it did in other parts of the county.

The Seattle Transportation Benefit District, which is governed by the members of the City Council, is currently reviewing Murray's plan and deciding whether to refer it to voters.

Councilmembers Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant last week said they want to amend the mayor's proposal. They floated a plan to replace the sales tax increase with a so-called employee "head tax," which would charge businesses up to $18 annually for each of their workers. Additionally, the councilmembers are pushing to increase the tax on commercial parking from 12.5 percent to 17.5 percent. Together the head tax and parking tax increase, they say, would raise about $21 million each year.

Mayor's Office spokesperson Megan Coppersmith said that Murray did not have any comment on the amendment.

Dembowski is not entirely comfortable with the direction transit financing is headed with Murray's proposal. 

"I personally don’t like it," he said, though he is willing to support funding mechanisms like the one in Murray's plan on a short-term basis. "I think once you start having localized communities buying specific service you’re starting down a slippery slope of Balkanizing the transit system."

Prior to Murray unveiling his proposal, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced a program that would allow cities, or groups of cities, to purchase bus service beginning in 2015 using something called "Community Mobility Contracts."

Using these types of models for funding Metro service is not entirely unprecedented.

"Metro has provided services on a contract basis for many years," said Obeso.

Seattle, Auburn, Kent, Redmond, Issaquah, Sammamish, hospitals in Seattle and Microsoft are examples of municipalities and organizations that have contracts with the agency that allow for added service on specific routes. Some of these contracts involve cities and organizations paying at least one-third of a route's costs, while Metro picks up the other two-thirds. Other contracts involve cities making traffic improvements that allow for faster and more reliable bus service.

“We have a lot of experience with this,” Obeso said. But he added that the contracts can be complex to manage. He also said that while Mayor Murray's proposal to save service that runs through Seattle can provide a temporary financial bridge, “It’s not an ongoing sustainable solution for Metro."

There is consensus among local elected leaders that shoring up Metro's finances will likely require action on the part of state legislators.

Dembowski said the plan outlined in his motion would, at minimum, delay the 2015 cuts by a few months, allowing the County Council more time to work with the legislature, and perhaps return to voters with a different funding proposal. As an example he mentioned a simple one-tenth of a penny sales tax, which could generates $50 million annually.

Constantine has said that he would prefer asking voters to approve a motor vehicle excise tax to help fund Metro. But the county cannot levy such a tax, which is based on a vehicle's value, without the Legislature’s authorization. Lawmakers in Olympia have been unable to agree on any legislation that might solve the transit agency's budget woes.

Along with the service cuts will come job cuts. About 400 bus driver positions and 100 maintenance jobs would be eliminated, according to Obeso. The cuts would be spread out over a roughly one year time period and some would involve not replacing retiring drivers. Full time bus drivers made an average of $66,391 annually in 2012, according to Metro.

Since 2009, Metro has trimmed more than 100 jobs related to areas like payroll, planning and administration.

"I can always go get another job," said a bus driver, who has been with the agency for over 25 years and is familiar with the 139 route. Speaking about the line's riders, the driver, who asked not to be identified, said: "I feel for those people, there's an enormous number of people riding to the hospital."

Last Thursday, as the 139 bus approached the stop where she was headed, O'Reilly, the woman who lives in the senior community began to say, "Even if they ran it fewer trips…"

But she was cut-off mid-sentence by another woman in a nearby seat. "It's disastrous," Liz Devich quipped. She said she was on her way to the library to email Constantine and Metro, to argue that cutting the line is a mistake.

An email like the one she planned to write would probably come as no surprise to Obeso.

“We should be making a 15 percent investment in the system," he said. "Instead, to be going backwards, and making a reduction in the system is certainly not progress."

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