With gas prices still on the north side of $4 per gallon, more people than ever are riding King County Metro buses in Seattle and some parts of the suburbs. Ridership was up 7 percent last year, and as the Puget Sound Business Journal's Dierdre Gregg reports, continued growth is straining the system, with more riders getting bypassed at stops as stuffed buses too often breeze right past:
For riders of King County's jam-packed buses, there's good news and bad news. The good: The Transit Now program, which voters approved in 2006, will add 15 percent to 20 percent more service over the course of 10 years. The bad: That growth pace doesn't come close to matching the growth in ridership. The number of people climbing aboard Metro has gone up by 20 percent in three years. Moreover, the number of full buses that bypassed waiting passengers jumped by 45 percent in just the last year.
"Are we meeting the demand for bus services? The answer is no," said King County Executive Ron Sims. Despite the ardent desire of regional leaders like Sims to boost ridership, they have not carved a clear path for meeting the demand. Instead, local politicians are divided over whether to add transit taxes, fees and fares.
Sometimes Metro buses don't show up at all, or arrive far more than five minutes late, which is the system's on-time standard. An anecdote: Last month at First Avenue and Jackson Street in downtown Seattle, I waited for a Route 21 bus back to West Seattle that simply never came.
The same afternoon I was stood up by the 21, the 22 that was supposed to arrive 10 minutes later was still nowhere in sight 15 minutes after scheduled arrival. I left. I learned later from Metro that it did actually show up at First and Jackson. Eighteen minutes late. I'd like to say that in my experience these were isolated incidents, but they're not. It's been my impression, as a regular rider with an employer-provided bus pass, that about one in four waits for a Metro bus turns irrevocably fruitless either due to a no-show or excessive tardiness. I've received similar reports from other riders. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer noted earlier this year that on-time performance was down to 74 percent (it had been around 80 percent) and that more passengers getting on and off has added to delays.
To top it all off, lower-than-anticipated sales tax revenue means Metro will be short $45 million, or almost that amount, in this and each of the next two years. As a result, Metro is publicly grappling with fare hikes higher than the envisioned 25 cents, or cutting back on new Transit Now service for which voters thought they were paying when approving a 2006 sales tax increase of 0.1 percent. The new money was supposed to fund more runs on heavily used routes, and five new quasi-bus rapid transit (BRT) routes known as Rapid Ride. The triple whammy of costlier fuel, slackening sales tax revenue, and growing ridership is hitting bus transit systems nationwide.
Stiff fare hikes seem a small price to pay, if Metro can figure out a way to winnow routes and improve consistency. To salve delays, Metro does offer an online, real-time tool so you can check if your bus is running on time before heading to the stop (no information is available for re-routed buses). The service can be helpful, but plenty of people don't have access to the Internet before going to a bus stop. Adherence to the published schedule is crucial, as is adequate capacity on major routes.
Cut the lowest-ridership routes, let's say the lowest one-third, and re-deploy the buses and drivers to the busiest runs, where riders are most often bypassed. Where regulations require that regional sub-areas be apportioned a certain percentage of total Metro bus service, the King County Council should confront those mandates head-on. We could let politics undermine a common-sense re-deployment of limited resources. But let's not.
There's some hope. Metro does indicate that it wants to consider cutting some routes to beef up others. In its 2007-2016 strategic plan, the agency discusses (on pages 1-4) the possibility of expanding, modifying, or terminating some routes, based on performance.
Good. Metro also wants to make the published schedule more accurate. On pages 1-5 of the strategic plan [PDF], the agency says it aims to "improve on-time performance through routing adjustments, splitting of unreliable through-route pairs, adding of recovery time between trips ... and adding time or trips to schedules to account for slower travel speeds or recurring overloads." The 10 employees in the county's transit "speed and reliability" division should be able to figure it out. Myself, I'd settle for reliability. Predictability. It's the holy grail of transportation. Another way to cut loading and debarking times and help the buses run on schedule is with a mandatory pre-paid fare system, including scanners for fare compliance at dual, ground-level entrances/exits on each bus.
The issue of such costs tends to raise the issue of revenues and smart financial planning. And there's an elephant on the bus. Metro needs a higher fare-box recovery ratio. One-zone peak hour per-trip fares are currently $1.75. At the same time, operating revenue provides little more than one-fifth of the operating budget, if you do the math on this Metro fact sheet. Users need to pay more freight. To set the tone, double the one-zone peak hour per-trip fare to $3.50. It's just a shade more than 20 minutes' worth of wages for the lowest paid workers in King County. Let's raise the cost of monthly passes by a third. Sound extreme? So's the cost of fuel here compared to before, and that's not likely to change much in coming decades. Did we really expect to fully sidestep steep gas costs by riding the bus? If we don't pay more to ride the bus — a good bit more — we still pay a good bit more. Just in other ways (see above).
What's not on the table now, but should be, is a whole new business paradigm. Private bus operators would bid for key Metro routes, with contractor payments pegged to their adherence to schedules, service volume, capacity, cleanliness, and other performance goals. It's not as though public-private partnerships for bus service are unheard of hereabouts. Sound Transit will be contracting for between three to five years with a private company [PDF] to provide operations and maintenance for its Everett-to-Bellevue express route.
But for starters, Metro needs to brave controversy. First with a hefty fare hike, not an anemic 25 cents. Then by identifying the weakest performing routes and cutting them to help the real workhouse routes. Metro must also use its fairly robust internal performance reporting system [PDF] to better effect, re-calibrating schedules so they more often comport with reality.
There's a way out of this whole mess, but it will require leadership from the King County Council and executive.