The coming Metro Transit cuts are a rare opportunity

Instead of following arbitrary political allocations, let's shift to a philosophy of putting bus service where it's already working and where we want density to go.
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Standing room only on a Seattle bus. (Chuck Taylor)

Instead of following arbitrary political allocations, let's shift to a philosophy of putting bus service where it's already working and where we want density to go.

The King County Metro bus system is at a critical juncture. The direction county leaders choose for the regional transportation agency will have profound long-term impacts on our economy and environment.

King County can take one of two paths to deal with excessive costs, looming service reductions, and the outdated policy of regional equity. It can 'ꀜspread the pain'ꀝ and make simple broad-stroke across-the-board budget cuts and service reductions. Alternatively, it can view the situation as a strategic inflection point — that time in the life of an organization when circumstances force it to adapt to new reality — and use the crisis as an opportunity help shape the future we want. To date the Metro debate has focused on the first path. I hope that King County will step back and take a broader look at the situation.

There are a number of strategic and tactical steps Metro can take to use the crisis as an opportunity to shape the region'ꀙs future. First, the failed "20-40-40" service allocation formula must be scrapped. Originally put in place as a political way to make each region of the county feel there was some degree of equity in the allocation of service, it has instead created an artificial barrier to the county'ꀙs ability to shape regional mobility and support our growth management goals. (The 20-40-40 percentages refer to Seattle, Eastside, and South King County respectively.)

The formula also fails to meet any rational definition of equity for a population moving around the region, taking trips that cross artificial boundaries daily. Measuring effort by neighborhood benefits no one moving between neighborhoods. Further, it has created a system that measures effort rather than performance and results in unacceptability high costs by almost every measure. The Municipal League has documented the agency'ꀙs high cost per mile. While that figure is troubling, the high cost per rider is cause for even greater alarm as it clearly indicates that the system'ꀙs routes aren'ꀙt as productive as they should be.

As a policy, 20-40-40 also fails the test of shaping mobility for the region. There is no understandable tie to our regional growth management plans, and no ties to city permitting. Metro'ꀙs strategic policy should be to put buses where they work, and where we want them to work. Putting buses where they work (drawing good ridership) will maximize the performance of the system in those markets where transit can dominate: Downtown Seattle, the University District, Bellevue, and SeaTac. These are job centers already dense enough to make transit successful, and they are designated as growth centers for regional employment. They are the 'ꀜcash cows'ꀝ of the system.

More interesting, though, is putting buses where we want them to work. For 20 years, we'ꀙve had a regional strategy of growing 'ꀜcenters'ꀝ with density sufficient to be successful transit markets. Current plans identify 27 such centers in 18 cities in the county, and propose 'ꀜprioritizing transit funding'ꀝ to encourage investment in those centers. The state'ꀙs Growth Management Act supports this prioritizing by requiring 'ꀜconcurrency,'ꀝ a policy prohibiting cities and counties from permitting development where necessary infrastructure investments supporting the development haven'ꀙt been funded. In principle, concurrency focuses our scarce public resources on these designated centers.

Thus far, despite our 'ꀜmulti-modal'ꀝ goals, our growth management policies have focused on vehicle mobility. The standard metric for measuring transportation concurrency has been 'ꀜlevel of service'ꀝ or LOS. LOS measures the volume of cars flowing through an intersection and rates the flow with an A-F grade. To comply with GMA, cities set their target LOS with a rheostat: When transportation models show development, if permitted, will adversely affect LOS, the target is dropped from 'ꀜB'ꀝ to 'ꀜD'ꀝ and the development permitted.

Recently, the PSRC and the city of Bellevue completed a pilot of a new way of measuring concurrency based on the supply and demand for transportation capacity. In short, the model asks, 'ꀜHow much peak capacity will the planned development require?'ꀝ and, 'ꀜHow much peak capacity will the transportation system provide?'ꀝ The answers to these questions can be time-phased, and commitments can be required of local and regional agencies to provide the planned capacity.

The last question includes all modes of transportation: vehicles, transit, bikes, pedestrians, etc. Consequently, regional plans can be connected to local plans by defining these capacities, and regional agencies can be held accountable for providing committed services. The predictability of permitting under these models will provide certainly to investors, making centers more attractive investments. In all, the focus of concurrency policy on a centers strategy creates a virtuous circle for transit: Plan to implement service connecting centers, thereby making centers more attractive investment opportunities, and then investment occurs in centers, thus making them better transit markets and ridership grows.

The philosophy being urged here is for immediate budget cuts to be made surgically and strategically. They should be informed by the twin goals of putting buses where they work and where we want them to work. Design decisions must be tied to performance standards. Standards for those markets where buses work should focus on gaining peak market shares. Accordingly, our transit planners and managers should be held accountable for setting and achieving higher targets in these key markets.

Meanwhile, standards for those markets where we want transit to work in should be tied to specific commitments by cities and other public agencies to measurable concurrency decisions.

All service cuts should be based on these standards: Service should not be taken from markets where transit has a competitive advantage or from urban centers where committed development plans give transit a competitive advantage. The economic downturn should be used to make the tough decisions to rethink transit'ꀙs route structure, for both Metro and Sound Transit, saving and re-designing strategic routes, while also excising those not meeting or not yet meeting standards.

King County must also reform the management and accountability systems for transit. Focus should move to peak market share, cost-per-mile and cost-per-passenger. Overhead must become a specific focus for cost reduction, but improving the efficiency across all operations based on the quality, timeliness, and cost of the results of each transit team is the only way to systemically begin the continuous improvement in transit services. Finally, the results must be transparent, with targets and performance published routinely, so customers and taxpayers can see improvement.

It may feel, as Pogo once said, that we are confronted by insurmountable opportunity. But, in fact, these opportunities are surmountable. Our region's quality of life, economy, and environment depend on what we do with the opportunity the 'ꀜgreat recession'ꀝ has presented us with.


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