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Originally published February 4, 2013 at 9:23 PM | Page modified February 4, 2013 at 9:23 PM

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Bus service faces cutbacks; Metro asks city for help

A combination of expiring taxes, growing ridership and new demands on Seattle streets add up to a threat to Metro Transit service, its general manager told the City Council.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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Amid a ridership surge, King County Metro Transit says it might have to cut one-sixth of its bus-service hours if new funding isn’t found.

The most threatened routes are those using the Alaskan Way Viaduct, where Metro carries 24,000 passengers a day, up by one-fourth from two years ago.

Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond on Monday asked the Seattle City Council to join him in asking state lawmakers for new tax authority, and for the city to provide adequate road space downtown.

His advocacy campaign — titled “Keeping Seattle Moving” — may sound presumptuous. But transit carries 42 percent of downtown workers, while 35 percent drive alone and 23 percent carpool, bike, walk or telecommute, according to surveys for Commute Seattle, a nonprofit that promotes a mix of commuting options.

Two sources of money run out soon:

The state supplied $32 million from the viaduct-replacement budget for more buses and more service hours so people could get out of their cars, as Highway 99 construction narrowed traffic to two lanes each direction.

Car traffic on the viaduct has dropped by 25,000 over the last two years, while transit use grew 26 percent on West Seattle routes that received a boost from state funds.

“In my view, it’s close to insatiable demand in this corridor,” Desmond said.

But the state money expires in June 2014.

A $20 car-tab fee charged by Metro for two years, to prevent service cuts, expires in 2014.

To sustain current levels, Desmond said, the agency needs $75 million a year.

“If we cut our service in 2014, in my opinion there will be a disaster,” he said.

There was rancor enough last October, he said, when Metro merely reshuffled existing service hours to create the RapidRide West Seattle and Ballard lines, causing many buses to become more crowded.

Councilmember Richard Conlin wondered, why did the state support extra buses for only half the Highway 99 construction period, instead of until the tunnel opening, scheduled for early 2016?

One answer is that the 2009 agreement to build a tunnel — by former Gov. Chris Gregoire, former King County Executive Ron Sims and former Mayor Greg Nickels — was supposed to let Metro enact a permanent car-tab tax of $100 per $10,000 of vehicle value, taking effect about the same time the $32 million ended, Desmond said.

But the Legislature didn’t pass a bill allowing the tax.

The county, city and suburban cities in December suggested the state allow local car-tab taxes of $150 per $10,000 of value, with 60 percent for transit and 40 percent for local roads, along with an 8-cent statewide gas-tax hike.

Meanwhile, changes on the street will put more pressure on the transit network.

Seattle wants to create separated bicycle lanes downtown, and perhaps a new streetcar.

Transportation Director Peter Hahn said First Avenue is the leading streetcar option.

Also, some citizens seek to bring back the George Benson Waterfront Streetcar.

Highway 99 tunnel tolls would cause some drivers to divert and clog streets, and midtown exits that buses use will be removed when the viaduct is demolished.

King County Executive Dow Constantine is requesting a full-time bus lane in each direction from the future Sodo interchange to Columbia Street, but the city is leaning toward just one bus lane at peak hour, so ferry traffic or parking could use more of the new surface Alaskan Way. Regardless, transit riders would endure eight to 10 signaled intersections to reach midtown.

“How are we going to be able to keep the buses moving fast, so they can get in and out of downtown, so people can choose to ride the bus, so they don’t drive to work and gum up the downtown?” asked Desmond.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom

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