County, city take variety of routes on bus rescue
To stave off service cuts, Seattle may see a city-only proposal to raise the sales tax and hike car-tab fees. King County has a plan that would allow cities and big employers to purchase bus-service hours for routes of their choosing.
Seattle Times transportation reporter
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray Tuesday morning proposed new taxes to preserve bus service in the city.
The plan is essentially a Seattle-only version of Proposition 1, the proposed $60 car-tab fee and 0.1 percent sales-tax increase that suburban voters torpedoed April 22.
Post-election data showed a solid majority within Seattle said “yes” to Proposition 1, which would have raised money for both King County Metro Transit and local street funds.
The difference is, this city tax — an expected $45 million per year — would go entirely toward transit.
“The reason I would consider it the most promising option is it’s already been tested with the voters. They approved it,” said City Councilman Tom Rasmussen, chairman of the council’s Transportation Committee.
King County Metro Transit supplies local and commuter buses to the county’s 2 million people. Major budget and route decisions are made by the Metropolitan King County Council, though service runs in Seattle and other cities. Metro said after Prop. 1 failed that it planned to make major route cuts.
Murray’s move comes after transit activist Ben Schiendelman launched Initiative 118, a proposal to raise property taxes $22 per $100,000 of value. The campaign suspended signature gathering last weekend because of the elected leaders’ new momentum. Schiendelman credited I-118 for serving as a “forcing function” to prod the mayor.
As recently as Friday, the mayor criticized the notion of Seattle acting as “Lone Ranger” through city-only funding to restore King County Metro service. Murray said he wanted time to work out a regional plan with the county.
Instead, County Executive Dow Constantine on Monday announced a new program, Community Mobility Contracts, that would allow Seattle to buy bus-service hours from the county on routes of the city’s choosing.
“We’re agnostic about the funding source for their contracts,” Constantine said.
Other cities or employers also would be eligible, and Constantine said he hopes there will be regional alliances by local governments to help carry workers across city boundaries. Murray on Friday suggested a regional fund for that purpose, according to Jeff Reading, the mayor’s spokesman.
Seattle council members seem to favor a vehicle-license fee over a higher property tax, Councilmember Mike O’Brien said. Seattle is expected to renew Bridging the Gap property taxes in 2015 for street uses, and perhaps some transit. That would be a reason to avoid a property tax for transportation this year, he said.
“My No. 1 goal is to make sure we put something to the voters that can kind of close that gap, on transit,” O’Brien said.
Metro has proposed to cut 16 percent of all bus-service hours, starting with some of the least-used routes, in phases between this September and September 2015.
After spending down reserves, raising fares and reducing staff in the Great Recession, Metro managers say they still face an annual structural deficit of $75 million
The first of three Metro hearings on service cuts will be 6 p.m. Tuesday in Seattle’s Union Station, followed by hearings at Bellevue City Hall on Thursday and Renton Pavilion Event Center on May 20.
The free-market Washington Policy Center questions whether even tax-friendly Seattle would pass a car-tab fee.
Bob Pishue, the center’s transportation analyst, points out that city voters rejected a car-tab fee in 2011, even though part of the funds were pledged to bus stops, streetcar engineering and trolley-bus extensions.
Pishue called it “a false choice” for voters to choose between taxes or cuts, especially given that Metro’s primary source of funding — sales taxes — will outpace earlier projections by nearly $30 million this year.
Many of the routes on Metro’s list would be dropped or changed anyway for low ridership, in the normal course of restructurings, he said.
Service averaged more than $136 per bus hour in 2012, and cities would have to pay the full rate under Constantine’s plan.
That figure is higher than national averages, but Constantine replies that in terms of efficiency, Metro spends 99 cents per passenger mile, virtually identical to the 98 percent average.
Metro is usually the nation’s seventh-busiest public bus agency based on ridership counts. Constantine said, “400,000 people vote with their feet daily” to ride buses.
This wouldn’t be the first time cities and others have bought Metro service.
Under the 2006 Transit Now program, Seattle, Auburn, Kent, Redmond, Issaquah, Sammamish and Redmond buy supplemental bus trips, along with Microsoft, Seattle Children’s and the First Hill employer coalition. They pay one-third, while Metro pays two-thirds.
In all, these partnerships supply 73,655 operating hours on 30 routes this year.
Not so equal
An expanded buy-in program might cause inequities, in which wealthier communities or companies get more service while others suffer cuts.
Constantine said he’s aware of this.
“The alternative at this point is to cut all transit, everywhere,” he said.
Under Metro’s service guidelines, bus corridors get points for serving low-income and ethnically diverse areas, along with geographic reach, employment or housing density. So there’s some hedge against discrimination.
Another effect could be that cities fund different routes from the ones that Metro wants to cut — in other words, a backdoor restructuring.
For instance, would the Seattle City Council spend new money to relieve the overflowing Routes 8 and 70 in South Lake Union, or to stave off Metro’s proposed cuts to outlying Broadview and Arbor Heights?
Constantine also proposed three more types of oversight:
• A peer group of transit executives, to examine whether certain costs or services are unnecessary.
• A financial audit to include capital funding of buses, cash reserves and debt. This would include the question of whether Metro should issue debt to buy buses, something it doesn’t do now.
“We have 1,300 buses. If you continually started debt-financing the fleet, our successors would be stuck with large amounts of debt,” said Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond.
• A customer-service panel, to include experts from outside the transit industry.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @mikelindblom