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Originally published April 1, 2013 at 9:28 PM | Page modified April 2, 2013 at 10:44 PM

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Without taxes, Metro warns of big cuts

King County Metro says it might cut routes across the county, especially the least-traveled lines, if new funding isn’t found.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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King County Metro Transit says it might remove 65 bus routes and reduce trips on 86 more, unless the state Legislature allows the county to collect new taxes.

Pain would be spread from Lake Forest Park at the north county line to Federal Way and Enumclaw in the county’s far south.

General manager Kevin Desmond said Monday that any reductions would begin in fall 2014 and continue in 2015.

It’s possible state lawmakers won’t deal with transit, or even forward a highway package to voters, in which case Desmond’s “Keep Seattle Moving” campaign is setting the stage for a 2014 push to gain new taxing powers.

Service could be cut 17 percent even if Metro goes through with an expected 25-cent fare increase next year, he said.

Metro would start by removing its least-used routes, such as the 57 through Genesee Hill in West Seattle, the 201 on the perimeter of Mercer Island, or the 215 to North Bend, according to scenarios released by Metro.

But entire neighborhoods could be cast adrift without transit coverage. For instance, night buses to Shoreline Community College aren’t crowded, but the students and staff using them lack other options, Desmond said.

Also, people would lose feeder lines that go from a residential area to a busy station, his analysis says.

Fares increased $1 from 2008 to 2011, to the current rate of $2.25 for adult off-peak trips, $2.50 for one-zone trips, and $3 for a two-zone trip that crosses the Seattle city limits. Youth ages 6 to18 pay $1.25 and seniors 75 cents.

Even after the increases, riders pay only 27 percent of operating cost, while the rest is predominantly from countywide sales taxes.

Desmond didn’t suggest any staff, wage or project cuts Monday. He said there would be talks with labor-union leaders if the crisis deepens.

Metro’s popularity is on the upswing, now serving 400,000 riders a day, ranked seventh by passenger miles and 10th in boardings among U.S. bus-transit agencies.

House Bill 1959 would allow the Metropolitan King County Council to enact — or send to the ballot — a motor-vehicle excise tax (MVET) of $150 per $10,000 of vehicle value, to be split 60 percent for transit and 40 percent among county and city roads. And a $40 car-tab fee could be imposed by cities or counties.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Lake Forest Park, said that in the current political climate, the bill probably must merge with a bigger statewide plan that includes highway megaprojects to have a chance of passing the Republican-controlled Senate.

“There’s going to be a strong emphasis on fixing the funding gap for education and a general-fund deficit. This issue of transportation, even though it is important, is going to have to compete with other issues for the hearts and minds of legislators,” Farrell said.

Another obstacle is MVET envy. Many lawmakers fear letting King County boost car-tab costs because they want car-tab taxes to be devoted to state highways and ferries.

Metro says sales-tax revenue plummeted in the recent economic downturn, and it spent down $100 million in cash reserves, while removing 100 staff positions.

Operating costs in 2011 were the nation’s ninth-highest, at $130 per operating hour, compared with a big-cities average of $119.

County Council members imposed a stopgap, two-year car-tab fee of $20 for Metro that expires in June 2014.

In all, Metro needs about $75 million a year in new money to avoid cuts entirely, Desmond said.

On top of that, state aid from the replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel route will expire, removing 45,000 more service hours from Highway 99 bus routes that have quickly gained riders since 2011.

Members of the “Keep King County Moving Coalition” will descend on Olympia on Wednesday to lobby lawmakers, said Deanna Dawson, executive director of the 35-member Sound Cities Association.

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

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