Playing chicken with Metro buses

The bus system threatens to make big cuts, including on popular Seattle routes, if it doesn't get relief in the form of a surcharge on car-license tabs. Suburban members of the County Council balk at helping more transit-friendly parts of the county. Meanwhile, the city is threatening to put its own big ask to the voters for transit on the same November ballot.

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The bus system threatens to make big cuts, including on popular Seattle routes, if it doesn't get relief in the form of a surcharge on car-license tabs. Suburban members of the County Council balk at helping more transit-friendly parts of the county. Meanwhile, the city is threatening to put its own big ask to the voters for transit on the same November ballot.

The scene was the pedestrian equivalent of a rainy rush-hour backup on I-5. Or, a foretaste of lines to come at bus stops around the city, as more and more passengers try to squeeze into fewer, less frequent Metro coaches.

Up to a thousand anxious citizens (by official estimate) queued up to attend last Monday’s King County Council hearing on a two-year, $20 surcharge on vehicle license tabs proposed to stave off sweeping cuts in Metro service. Hundreds filled the council chambers and three overflow rooms. Hundreds more waited outside, where the line stretched out the county courthouse, down Third Avenue, and up Yesler Way.

A large majority (87 percent) of those who signed in to speak urged the council to approve the surcharge straightaway, Tim Eyman be damned, rather than kick it over to a public vote in November. The scene was repeated Thursday night in Burien, when the county’s transportation committee held its only other hearing on the Congestion Relief Charge (CRC), as the surcharge is called in a pitch for motorist support.

Bus supporters still didn’t have enough committed council votes to pass it. The four (unofficially) Democratic councilmembers representing the city of Seattle all endorsed the tab charge from the start. The council’s fifth Democrat, Julia Patterson, who represents Burien and other close-in suburban areas, endorsed it Tuesday, after Monday’s hearing and before she could get lambasted by her constituents at Thursday’s. She said she came aboard after learning something that should not have been any secret — that the charge would restore thousands of hours of bus service in her district.

But the four Republicans on the council, representing cities and rural areas on the Eastside and further south, were still holding out. Much may change by the time the council votes on the CRC this Monday (July 25); some may simply be waiting till they receive enough public pressure to say, “I tried to hold the line on new taxes, but you my constituents made it clear you really want to preserve bus service.” If this minority continues to hold out, however, it will force the measure to the ballot. The legislature, when it authorized the special county tab fee, required a supermajority (i.e. six of nine councilmembers) to pass it outright.

That public vote would trigger a different kind of pile-up on the ballot, jostling another pitch, at once complementary and competitive, from the city of Seattle for a bigger tab charge to aid transit, bikes, and road repairs. The ballot measure would also constitute a dire cliffhanger for a bus system that’s bursting with passengers and starving, thanks only partly to its own inefficiencies, for funds.

The political dynamics bear some resemblance to those playing out in the other Washington over debt limits and deficit reduction. Many who back the CRC most ardently (and who will also back a city tab charge) do so holding their noses at its finances. Rather than piling on regressive flat fees, which disproportionately affect owners of motorcycles and older and cheaper cars, they’d prefer the pre-Eyman
approach, a charge pegged to vehicle value. Or, better yet, more gas tax. But they’re going for what they hope they can get.

As in the debt-limit debate, the stakes are serious, though the circumstances may seem ridiculous: As a region we’re struggling over $60 million worth of bus service per year (the shortfall that the county hopes to plug with the tab charge) while proceeding with billion-dollar light rail lines. Yeah, I know, those are separate budgets, approved in separate votes. Nonetheless, without that money, Metro warns that “up to 600,000 annual service hours, or 17 percent of the current Metro system, could be eliminated.” Even allowing for a scare factor in that forecast (agencies denied funding tend to find ways to do more than they warned they could), the cuts will certainly go deep, at a time when both the system and its riders are already feeling the strain.

Metro’s ridership rose headily from 2003 through 2008, in pace with the rising economy, traffic congestion, and gas prices, from about 90 to 118 million boardings per year. It fell a total of 7 percent in 2009 and 2010, as gas prices sagged, the economy slumped, and Metro closed some routes to defer to the new Sound Transit light rail line. Fewer people had jobs to get to or money to spend on discretionary trips — especially after four adult fare increases, totaling 80 percent, in four years.

Now Metro's ridership is ticking back up; the bus-transit agency reports a 4 percent rise in boardings in the second quarter over last year, and a 6 percent jump June-to-June. That may be a hopeful economic indicator, though rising gas and parking costs also play a part. It’s certainly more load on a system slammed by a big loss in sales tax receipts, which are far from recovering.

To fill the gap absent the car-tab boost, Metro threatens to eliminate about 85 routes, reduce or alter service to 115 more, and leave just 40 unscathed. Those to be cut include some of the highest-performing in the system, according to an official formula based on number of riders, the average distance those riders travel, and the share of operating costs paid by the farebox. These high-performing victims are all in Seattle: Route 4 from Judkins Park to Queen Anne, the 72 and 73 to the U-District, and the 18 to Ballard (though it would be replaced by upcoming bus rapid transit). During peak hours the Queen Anne leg of the 4, for instance, pencils out better than any route in the system; its farebox covers 71 percent of operating expenses, nearly triple the system average.

The rationale for cutting such highly efficient routes: They duplicate or shadow other routes, and so are relatively dispensable. Indeed, public-transit scourges such as the conservative Washington Policy Institute’s Michael Ennis, in this Times op-ed, contend that the threatened cuts would largely just eliminate “redundant,” “inefficient,” and “low-productivity” routes. But there’s often less to these terms than meets the eye, or fits in a tendentious op-ed. For example: At its north end, on Queen Anne, the 4 bus follows mostly the same route as the 3; where it diverges it runs just three blocks from another route, the 13. But at its south end the 4 provides unique service to Judkins, a less transit-favored neighborhood than Queen Anne.

Likewise, the popular Route 2 across the spine of Queen Anne, which is also proposed for elimination, parallels the 13, six blocks to the east, and the 10, four blocks to the west. I’ve played this system, flitting between the various routes according to which bus comes next. But a steep slope makes the 10 inaccessible to many hilltop residents, and, faced with walking a third of a mile farther to catch the 13, some would choose to drive instead. Out of many such efficiencies, downward spirals are made.

Most important, nearly all the Queen Anne routes are packed at peak hours. Eliminating some would mean adding buses to others, or turning away riders. And this peak-hour congestion would only be worsened if Metro adopted another measure Ennis urges: raising off-peak fares to peak levels. Peak loads determine bus size and system capacity (which in turn leave non-riders grumbling about buses running near-empty late at night). If anything, Metro should boost its congestion-pricing differential, now just 25 cents, to nudge more riders away from peak hours (though employers, not the workers riding the buses, generally determine those hours).

“Low productivity” is also a fraught term. Transit planners are bound by two discordant goals: providing efficient, cost-effective service, and providing service everywhere. The proposed cuts balance these considerations, but it’s always a messy, imperfect judgment. Suburban routes, with their greater distances, sparser populations, and lower ridership percentages, are much less cost-efficient than urban ones. Metro grades them on a curve: To be judged “high performance,” Seattle routes must (depending on time of day) cover 40 to 120 percent more of their expenses from fares than “high performance” Eastside routes. Suburban taxpayers may resent subsidizing
urban buses, but urban riders are also propping up suburban routes.

Still, it’s the Eastside county council members who’ve held out against the tab fee, and Eastside voters who would likely muster against it.

What’s a transit-loving central city to do? Furthering complicating the picture, the Seattle City Council is now considering asking Seattle voters for up to $80 in additional tab fees for a laundry list of transportation needs. A citizens advisory committee has recommended that half go to “transit,” mostly to improvements such as curb bulbs and signal prioritization to make current buses run faster. That can squeeze a little more effective capacity out of the same fleet, but it wouldn’t come near to replacing all the Metro cuts.

The city could also use the money to buy more bus hours from the county (it already buys some). But Tom Rasmussen, the city council’s transportation committee chair, has “strong reservations” about picking up more of the county’s slack. It’s like using local school funds to pay for basic education that the state doesn’t cover; once you start paying, it’s hard to get out.

At the same time, offering anxious voters an $80 tab charge on top of a $20 county ballot measure (and the $20 the city already collects for roads) is a prospect to make strong politicians tremble. “That’s $120 per vehicle,” says Rasmussen. “If people do the math they’ll question whether that’s a priority.”

It would be so much simpler, for a couple of years, if the county council would just approve Metro’s lifeline. And then pray for sales taxes to recover.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.