Metro's dilemma: high demand, thin wallet

Something has to be done about financing Metro, says outgoing bus boss Ron Sims. We also need a new way for bus lines to serve an urban region that is no longer hub-and-spoke.
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Standing room only on a Seattle bus. (Chuck Taylor)

Something has to be done about financing Metro, says outgoing bus boss Ron Sims. We also need a new way for bus lines to serve an urban region that is no longer hub-and-spoke.

You're waiting for a bus in downtown Seattle. The street hustler is talking loudly on his cell phone. The bag lady is mumbling to herself. The empty bottle lies on the pavement. The trash blows up against the bus shelter. If you were to lean against the nearby building, you'd have to wash your clothes. If you were to sit in the shelter, you'd have to inhale the cigarette smoke. If it's getting dark, you may remember the homeless guy who got shot at a bus stop by Benaroya Hall in January, or the Tuba Man's fatal beating near a bus stop close to Seattle Center.

The experience will be different on July 18, when Sound Transit opens its sleek new light rail service from downtown Seattle to Tukwila. (You always wanted to go to Tukwila, didn't you?) You won't have to wait at a grungy stop. You won't have to climb stairs to get on or off. You won't have to share waiting space or seats with drunks or mumblers.

Under the circumstances, won't the Metro bus system be the ugly stepchild of public transportation? Of course. 'ꀜBuses will always be the ugly stepchild,'ꀝ former King County Executive Ron Sims told me, shortly before he resigned to become Obama's Deputy Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. 'ꀜBut they're necessary.'ꀝ

Indeed, while slick light rail and cute streetcars stir the imagination, buses represent both the present and future of mass transportation in the Seattle area. Sound Transit expects its Link light rail trains to carry 26,000 passengers each weekday by the end of next year. In 2007, on an average weekday, Metro carried 365,000.

So here we are, blowing hot air about our commitment to halting climate change, preserving green space, and saving the Sound — all of which require increased use of public transportation — and here Metro is facing a $168-million revenue shortfall over the next two years. Is there a little disconnect?

Metro and other Washington transit agencies get .9 percent from the sales tax. Historically, King County (which operates Metro) has watched sales tax revenues go up 5.5 percent a year, the figure Metro has used for planning purposes. But times have changed. This year, sales tax revenues have declined 6 percent. In 2010, they're expected to rise again, but less than 1 percent. In 2011, they're expected to rise less than 2 percent. As a result, the agency projects a revenue gap of $74 million next year and a $94-million gap in 2011.

By the time sales tax revenue resumes its 'ꀜnormal'ꀝ rate of increase (assuming that eventually happens) the system will be standing in a deep hole. Metro can't raise fares much without driving away riders. The system has relied on fare increases to keep pace with inflation, but it didn't raise fares at all from 2002 to 2007. Last year and this year saw 25-cent increases, and next year will see another one. Each 25 cents brings in another $10-12 million in annual revenue. But 'ꀜraising fares during an economic recession is not a good thing to do,'ꀝ says Metro general manager Kevin Desmond. 'ꀜThere's a point at which you reach diminishing returns.'ꀝ

The situation could easily have been even worse. Without manna from Washington, the two-year deficit would have been $218 million. Metro is getting some $71 million in federal stimulus money, $50 million of which can shoveled into the revenue gap. The stimulus package 'ꀜcame just in the nick of time,'ꀝ Desmond says.'ꀜ

It may be, as Tolstoy wrote, that 'ꀜevery unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,'ꀝ but public transit agencies are all financially unhappy in much the same way. 'ꀜEvery transit agency in the country'ꀝ is in the same boat, Sims said.

The boat is big enough for New York subways, too. After a long-running battle in Albany, the New York legislature has finally passed a bailout for the metropolitan area's MTA transit system. The agency went hat in hand to the legislature, hoping for funds that would plug the gap between operating expenses and tax shortfalls in a dismal economy. The legislature, which had budget problems of its own, didn't exactly hurry to help. Faced with a demand to bail out public transportation in the big city, upstate legislators replied: How about the roads and bridges on which their own constituents rely? The upshot was a big zero.

The MTA was getting ready for a 30-percent fare hike on June 1. Then the legislature finally came through — deferring some decisions but averting the worst for the coming year. Fares will go up only a quarter. The legislature has made up the difference with a 12-county payroll tax, an increase in vehicle registration fees, and a 50-cent-per-ride taxi surcharge.

Metro should be so lucky. This year's Washington legislature actually passed a major transportation package, but 'ꀜtransportation'ꀝ basically meant 'ꀜroads.'ꀝ The legislature didn't give Metro any state money, but it did give the King County Council and King County voters the tools to narrow, if not close, the gap between revenues and expenditures. The County Council can decide without a vote of the people to use 7.5 cents per $1,000 of property tax for transportation, 1 cent for transit improvements on the new 520 bridge and 6.5 cents for transit. (The 75 cents per $1,000 that the County was authorized to collect for the new ferry district — you may have forgotten that King County was now in the ferry business — was reduced to 7.5 cents.) And if the Council puts it on the ballot, the people can vote to pay another $20 a year for their vehicle license tabs, with all that new money going to transit.

This is no panacea. At best, even if people vote 'ꀜyes'ꀝ on license tabs (and Tim Eyman doesn't smack it down), this will ease but not solve Metro's budget problems. The license fee boost could raise $31 million, the property tax $25 million. The combined $55 million a year would obviously fall short of the projected $74 million and $94 million projected deficits. Financially, Desmond says, 'ꀜthe gap between expectations and reality keeps getting wider.'ꀝ

Why can't the state do more? Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown talks about the barriers posed by Initiative 960, which requires a two-thirds vote of the legislature (or a vote of the people) for any tax increase, and the 18th amendment to the state constitution, which says the state can spend gas tax money only on highways. (There's a ringing constitutional principle for you.) As King County Councilman Dow Constantine, one of the people who wants to succeed Sims, puts it: 'ꀜthe state Transportation Department is the highway department.'ꀝ As a result, 'ꀜeach local government is being asked to raise money to run the buses.'ꀝ

Brown says that in 2011, the legislature will have to pass something that puts more resources into transit. Sims won't hold his breath. He said he didn't expect the legislature to bail Metro out this year or later. 'ꀜWould I like the state to help?'ꀝ he asked. 'ꀜYes.'ꀝ Did he expect it? Not really. However, he doesn't see Metro's financial problems as long-term, but rather as an artifact of the current economy. Ridership continues to rise — or did until the economy tanked. Now that the EPA has decided greenhouse gases are pollutants that may endanger the public health and welfare, Sims suggested, Clean Air Act regulations will eventually force Washington to invest more in transit.

Nevertheless, this has been a hard year for Metro, and not just financially. Last winter's snowstorm was not the agency's finest hour. People who left their cars at home stood in snowdrifts for hours waiting for buses that didn't come. When a bus did show up, it was already crammed so full of people that it might not even stop. Metro temporarily abandoned half of its routes. Those big articulated buses were not made for icy streets. And in the city of Seattle, some streets weren't plowed, anyway.

Pick a story, any story. After two-and-one-half hours waiting on Second Avenue for a bus going to her Federal Way park-and-ride lot, one woman saw that 'ꀜit was getting dark. I started to panic.'ꀝ Full buses passed her by. She finally squeezed onto a bus going in the right general direction. She avoided a walk of several miles through the snow — it was fully dark, now — only because the driver broke rules to drop her closer to her car.

The main lesson learned, Sims said, was that Matro needed better communications with both buses and riders. The agency is installing a GIS system that can track the position of each bus in real time, and it will find ways to make current schedule information available through the internet. (This does not require pushing the technological envelope. Even the benighted Washington State Ferry system sends out email alerts when boats go off schedule.)

Sims noted that the snow problems were confined largely to the city of Seattle. Outside the city, buses had less trouble. Metro isn't just a Seattle system, of course, and Sims argued it should be even less Seattle-centered. He said that even with Metro-'s 40-40-20 plan — which gives only 20 percent of new transit service to Seattle, Shoreline, and Lake Forest Part, while 40 percent has gone to the east county and 40 percent to the south — Seattle still has 55 percent of the service. He argues that the old hub-and-spoke model, which funnels people into and out of downtown cores, doesn't match the growing reality of population and job locations, and doesn't match what must be done to create 'ꀜsmart growth.'ꀝ He complains that Seattle and Bellevue want to divide up the transit pie between them.

This isn't just a kind of transit grab. Late last year the Municipal League suggested that the 40-40-20 allocation, established by the County Council in 2001, 'ꀝhas outlived its usefulness,'ꀝ and that transit made more sense in the high population densities of Seattle and Bellevue. Constantine, too, suggests that 40-40-20 probably isn't the most rational way to go.)

Sims said he found it ironic that Bellevue now wants all the transit it can get. 'ꀜWhen I first became County Executive,'ꀝ he recalled, 'ꀜBellevue said 'we don't want buses, we don't want density, we don't want park-and-rides.''ꀝ He also proposed a very different, perhaps longer-term, vision of 'ꀜsmart growth.'ꀝ If we're trying to channel growth into the urban growth boundary, then we have to treat everything within that boundary as urban, which means providing an infrastructure of public transportation. He said that as County Executive, he talked more and more with executives who wanted to locate plants and offices near places where workers lived. And workers increasingly want to live close to their jobs.

This means, he argued, that we need transit connections between outlying residential areas and outlying industrial or office areas. As a matter of both equity and rational planning, a low-income area such as White Center should be every bit as well connected as an upscale enclave such Sims' own Mount Baker neighborhood. And there's no reason why a newly developed place such as the Issaquah Highlands shouldn't have good bus service. Downtown has little to do with it. You're either in the urban growth area or you're not. 'ꀜThere are no more 'suburbs,''ꀝ Sims said.

Even in the urban core, Sims noted that light rail won't work unless buses carry passengers to the rail stations. Rail also makes little sense without high-density development around stations. Light rail will never move all that many people. It may, however, be valuable as a tool for channeling growth.

Meanwhile, resistance to 'ꀜTransit-Oriented Development'ꀝ (higher density around stations) has already cropped up in southeast Seattle. A bill that would have required 50 dwelling units per acre within a half mile of a rail transit station set off a lot of neighborhood alarm bells before it died in Olympia this year. Sims talked about the difficulty of selling TOD. But he said he was confident it would happen here. He predicted that the Obama administration will tie infrastructure dollars to TOD, thereby making the region an offer it can't refuse.

And buses won't carry all the passengers they should if people have to walk far to find them. Sims cited research showing that when people have to walk more than a quarter mile to the nearest stop, ridership drops dramatically.

Sims is talking ultimately about a tightly-woven transit grid that covers the whole urban growth area. Desmond concurs that this is indeed the long-term vision, but 'ꀜit's hard to foresee the finances to make that happen.'ꀝ

Sims wondered pointedly if the people who want to succeed him as King County Executive will share his view of smart growth, and his vision of the urban growth area. 'ꀜWatch the debates,'ꀝ he urged. 'ꀜSee who's the regionalist and who's the localist. They'll all say they're regionalists,'ꀝ Sims predicted, but the devil will be in the details.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.