Cuts in transit could make UW students’ ride to campus longer
College students may be especially hard-hit by cuts in bus service if a Metro funding measure fails, but transit proponents worry that students may not even realize there’s an election under way.
Seattle Times higher-education reporter
Pamela Dorris takes two buses and a train to get to the University of Washington campus from her Bonney Lake home every day — a commute that can easily claim up to four hours of her day.
She’s one of thousands of students who take a Metro bus to college in Seattle, saving as much as 27 percent of the cost of attending the UW by living at home with her parents.
If voters reject the Metro transit-funding package in April and bus service is cut, students who commute to Seattle could face much longer travel times this fall — commutes that could make it more challenging to live at home and go to school, take internships or hold part-time jobs.
Transit proponents worry that although students are going to be especially hard-hit, they may not even know there’s an election under way because local issues don’t always resonate with 20-somethings.
“We’ve never had a countywide special election in April, so few people know about the election, period, but that’s especially true of college students,” said April Putney, campaign manager for Move King County Now, which is advocating for the ballot measure.
Proposition 1 would add a tenth of a cent to the sales tax and set an annual car-tab fee of $60 to maintain Metro Transit service at current levels and help fund road projects throughout the county. Ballots have been sent by mail and are due back April 22.
College students tend to be bus riders, either because they don’t own cars or because they are eager to promote sustainability measures — sometimes a little of both. According to a survey, 12 percent of Metro’s daily riders are commuting to school and nearly half are dependent on transit for most or all of their transportation needs.
At least anecdotally, there’s more support on campus to save Metro than to cut it.
“Once people are made aware of this issue, they say, ‘Oh, no this is bad,’ ” said UW student Kodie Dower, who is chapter chair of WashPIRG — the state arm of the nonprofit Public Interest Research Group, a grass-roots organizing and advocacy group.
“We obviously can’t reach everybody — and there are definitely people who don’t know buses are going to be cut,” Dower said.
Opponents say Metro is deliberately cutting busy routes to locations such as the UW in Seattle to rally support for the measure.
“This idea that if they don’t get more tax the sky is going to fall — it’s just trying to intimidate the voters into giving them another tax increase, as if there was no other choice,” said Dick Paylor, a member of the pro-highway Eastside Transportation Association, which opposes the measure. Paylor helped write the voter’s pamphlet statement opposing the measure.
Metro’s finances are closely tied to the sales tax, which is sensitive to changes in the economy. Revenue plummeted during the recession and has rebounded only gradually, leaving Metro short of money. The Legislature failed to act on an overall transportation package for Metro, leaving the agency with few funding options.
The proposed Metro cuts would include lines that provide direct service to the UW’s Seattle campus from Renton, Woodinville, Newport Hills, Magnolia, Finn Hill, Overlake and Issaquah.
Metro is also proposing consolidating six routes that run between downtown and the Seattle campus into a single route, No. 73, a bus that’s already overcrowded during rush hour.
Late-night service would be cut systemwide and there would be fewer rush-hour trips to some neighborhoods.
Metro officials say they have proposed reducing routes that carry fewer people or carry them for shorter distances or duplicate other services. The plan keeps more service on heavily used routes, retains buses to low-income and minority communities where many people rely on buses and keeps routes that get people to key destinations across King County.
“We know it will make it less convenient” if routes are consolidated, and bus stops likely will become more crowded, said Victor Obeso, manager of service development for Metro. He said it saves money to consolidate bus lines to a single route.
Move King County Now estimates about 17,000 people take the bus to the UW every day, according to Putney. “It is alarming how much the UW will be impacted, especially when you take into account it’s not just students who are taking the bus, but faculty and staff as well,” she said.
At Bellevue College, where about 1,500 students take the bus each day, Metro would eliminate two of four routes that stop at the central-campus bus stop, and students would have to get off the bus at a nearby park-and-ride lot or on busy 148th Avenue Northeast,
Alex Clark, a Bellevue College student who is the environmental and responsibility representative for student government, said there have been assaults in the area, and the busy road is a safety hazard for all students — particularly the disabled. He’s dismayed that the Legislature did not come up with funding to save Metro from cuts, forcing it to a local vote.
“We’ve been doing everything we can on campus to promote alternative transportation,” Clark said. “We can’t promote alternative transportation if there isn’t a viable system there for people to take part in.”
Dorris, the UW student from Bonney Lake, will graduate before the proposed cuts would take effect in September. She has, nevertheless, testified at a public hearing and plans to join a phone bank this month to encourage voters to fill out their ballots.
In order to make it to class on time, she wakes up at 6 a.m. and takes a bus to the Sounder commuter train, the train to the King Street Station and a Metro bus from the nearby Chinatown International District to campus.
Only Metro service would be affected by the proposed cuts, but it’s already one of the most crowded parts of her commute. On any given day, “There’s 50 people minimum waiting to get on the bus,” she said, and if she misses her ride, she’s late to class.
Since fall 2011, all UW students have paid a quarterly fee that buys a Metro bus pass for all. The U-Pass was created to foster a culture of transit use, in part to help address climate change and make the campus more sustainable. The university’s Seattle commuters emit the equivalent of 7,318 fewer metric tons of carbon dioxide as a result of the U-Pass, officials there say.
The UW says about 46 percent of students attending the Seattle campus and 41 percent of staff use transit to get to school. That’s up from 2002, when 38 percent of students and 36 percent of staff used transit.
Only 9 percent of students drive alone to school, down significantly from 19 percent in 2002.
Paylor, the spokesman for the opposition group, said Metro should be promoting higher fares as an alternative, something he thinks most riders would go for to preserve routes. “They’re not even suggesting the idea of raising fares sufficient to avoid these cuts,” he said.
Obeso said raising rates to get rid of a $60 million to $70 million shortfall would mean raising bus fares by an extra $1.50 or more. The two-zone price for an adult during peak hours is $3 — already one of the highest prices in the country.
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @katherinelong.