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Muni League: Clearing the air so region can make progress on transportation

Metro bus service is about to shrink. Credit: Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives

The Municipal League Foundation of King County recommended a Yes vote on Proposition 1, the recently defeated countywide transportation measure. We reached this decision after weighing both sides and determining that it was important to maintain current Metro bus service and fix the county’s backlog of road and bridge maintenance needs. Currently, some Metro routes have buses that are filled to capacity, leaving riders to wait for later buses, and there are increasing complaints about roads and bridges in unincorporated King County.

As the debate about regional transportation moves out of the intersection of this recent campaign, the Municipal League would like to provide context for our recommendation and help usher in a broader conversation about the future of transportation infrastructure and the role Metro.

The defeat of Proposition 1 leaves our growing region with an either-or set of options: begin phasing in bus service reductions and leave roads and bridges in poor condition or get on the Initiative 118 bandwagon to go with a Seattle-only measure. Or perhaps Mayor Ed Murray will develop a third way for us to consider.

The Municipal League would like to set the record straight about our Yes recommendation on Proposition 1. Elements of our full position statement and our past Metro Transit reports were taken out of context by opponents of Proposition 1 in the recent public debate and post-election analysis.

The Municipal League of King County, founded in 1910, advocates for good government and the development of critical infrastructure in our region. Recognizing public transportation’s vital role in our region’s economic and environmental future, we have invested considerable time monitoring Metro Transit over the past decade.

Our 2008 Review of Metro Transit report described the agency’s weaknesses in addressing service allocation, performance measurement, and strategic planning. In 2013, we issued our follow-up report on the progress made by the agency, but found that considerable work remains to be done, particularly in regard to the agency’s budgeting, financial reporting and cost control processes. Given our current, slow-growing economy, we remain concerned about Metro’s struggle to address long-standing financial issues. However, Proposition 1 critics failed to mention that our 2013 report described many service and productivity improvements and successes including Lean Six Sigma process redesign initiatives that Metro has initiated under the leadership of King County Executive Dow Constantine and implemented by Metro’s General Manager Kevin Desmond.

The opponents of Proposition 1 argued that Metro’s finances are unsustainable, so we should vote against the measure. In our reports and ballot recommendation, the Municipal League highlighted actions Metro had already taken to deliver service more cost-effectively, including improved scheduling, reduced staff and the shifting of funds from capital investment to operations. The agency has been making significant efforts to slow the growth of expenses and to operate more efficiently. The problem would not have been solved overnight even if Proposition 1 had passed. These efforts will now become more difficult and will take longer to resolve.

The recent debate elicited strong opinions about the wages paid to Metro drivers. Unfortunately, most of the claims did not take into account that the Constantine administration has been successful in getting a previous 3 percent wage increase “floor” removed, negotiated a wage freeze in 2011, and then held increases to inflation for the past two years. At this moment, King County is going into mediation with the bus operators’ union (ATU 587) on the latest contract proposal that would hold any raises for three years.

Finally, opponents raised the argument during the recent campaign that too much transit service is allocated to Seattle. This issue of sub-area service allocation was settled a few years ago through the work of the Regional Transit Task Force. We believe strongly that this matter should remain settled since no new information has been presented to warrant re-opening it. Metro’s service allocation should continue to be prioritized to direct service to where the riders are and where they need to go.

The Municipal League considered both Metro’s recent history and our region’s current needs, including roads and bridges, before deciding to support Proposition 1. While we are concerned that Metro has financial problems that still require long-term solutions, ultimately, we believe our region’s future will not be well served if Metro is not supported in meeting the increasing ridership demand. We recommended a Yes vote on Proposition 1, because Metro service cutbacks will likely roll back the agency’s historic gains in ridership. These gains are reshaping the way many King County residents navigate our region and the cutbacks have potentially severe impacts on low-income residents.

Anyone who lives or works in King County knows we need to provide transportation options and maintain our roads and bridges. We also need to thoughtfully discuss how we will implement plans for growing communities. We must ensure that citizens have transportation choices, safeguard our clean environment, and understand how our everyday choices affect climate change. As an organization, the Municipal League is committed to expanding constructive public debate and solving these difficult issues for the long term. We can’t remain stuck in an intersection of sound bites.

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