Constantine, Hutchison see different routes to solving Metro deficit
The winner in the Nov. 3 election will help decide whether to raise fares, raise taxes, cut service or cut spending for employees in the nation's seventh-largest public bus-transit agency.
Seattle Times transportation reporter
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Three years ago, King County Metro Transit boasted the nation's fastest-growing ridership, along with a voter-supported tax increase to expand routes and buy hundreds of hybrid buses.
There was little talk of cutting back.
Then came the recession, and a steep drop in sales taxes blew a $213 million hole in the 2010-11 budget.
It's a crisis either Dow Constantine or Susan Hutchison will inherit in a few weeks, after one of them is sworn in as King County executive. The winner in the Nov. 3 election will help decide whether to raise fares, raise taxes, cut service or cut spending for employees in the nation's seventh-largest public bus-transit agency.
Constantine, who is chair of the County Council, isn't shy about suggesting taxes once the recession is over. He displays a wonkish grasp of detail and a pro-light-rail and pro-bus record.
Hutchison, a former news anchor, says she is not contemplating more transit taxes. She says she is still a "student" of the issues, but promises she would impose more fiscal discipline than her insider opponent.
Local politicians caught a break when a recent audit located $105 million in excess funds for bus replacement. Much of that could be shifted to preserve service and reduce the $213 million shortfall.
So far, a fare increase and federal stimulus money have helped prevent any cuts at Metro, which carries 360,000 riders a day.
Constantine said in January the County Council should enact a 1 percent car-tab tax ($100 on a $10,000 vehicle) to add bus service countywide — without a ballot measure — as an element of the state's Highway 99 bored-tunnel plan, echoing the position of then-County Executive Ron Sims.
"No politician wants to take a vote to raise taxes, but we're all elected to solve problems. This is how we earn our pay," Constantine said then. State lawmakers failed to authorize the county to impose the tax.
Constantine now says he'll ask Olympia for long-term help, such as a car-tab tax or a license fee.
A tax on vehicles would be more fair than a property-tax or sales-tax increase, he said, especially with sales taxes approaching 10 percent.
Two years ago, Constantine led an 8-1 majority to enact a property tax for seven passenger-ferry routes. "That was the only option we were given by the Legislature, was property taxes," he said.
In a questionnaire for the small Transit Riders Union, Constantine supported repealing the state constitution's 18th Amendment, which limits gas-tax money to roads, so the state could help fund urban transit.
Hutchison disagrees. "Roads money should stay with roads," she said in an interview.
Meanwhile, county leaders are discussing shifting most of the ferry tax to Metro and to Highway 520 transit projects while keeping two existing ferries to West Seattle and Vashon Island. Future ferry routes from Ballard and Des Moines to downtown Seattle, and on Lake Washington, would not get started. Both candidates support the shift.
Hutchison argues for cutting excessive costs or unneeded bus routes.
"Metro is one of the most expensive bus systems in the country," Hutchison said. "Well before you would ever raise taxes, we need to bring costs down to a manageable level."
A Municipal League review found Metro spent 38 percent above the national average per passenger mile in 2005; managers replied that they run a downtown tunnel and trolley buses that require maintaining overhead electric wires, and that other costs are close to those of peer cities.
Hutchison promises in a TV ad to "fund only transportation projects that relieve congestion and get the economy moving."
In an interview, she called for a public-roads vote in about four years, by which time she said she would restore voter faith in county government. Bus drivers know better than anyone the need to reduce congestion, she says.
Constantine said he would ask transit employees to suggest cost-saving ideas. "Metro is, relative to many systems, in pretty good shape," he said. "We've had strong demand and worked to put service on the street."
He supported more highway lanes at major bottlenecks, in a combined roads-transit package that failed in 2007, and said he could do so again.
Fares cover 23 percent of Metro's operating costs.
Interim County Executive Kurt Triplett has proposed increases of 25 cents per trip each of the next two years. Adult fares are now $2 within Seattle and $2.50 to cross city limits at peak times.
Both candidates are leery about huge fare increases, saying those would hurt low-income workers and others who rely on buses.
Constantine supports interim Executive Kurt Triplett's proposed 25-cent fare increase in 2010 and 2011, but says it's excessive to add two additional quarters in 2012-13, as four suburban council members have suggested.
Hutchison backs the scheduled increase in 2010, but said she hasn't studied the details enough to discuss future fares yet.
Triplett proposed a temporary 9 percent reduction in service hours, applied to all 225 of the routes to avoid squabbles among cities or pitting Seattle against suburbs. Constantine agrees, and is looking for savings to reduce the severity, said campaign spokesman Sandeep Kaushik.
Hutchison says Metro should trim lesser-used routes. "I don't see political solutions as the answer," she said of Triplett's compromise proposal.
The lesser-used routes tend to be in the outer suburbs.
Hutchison complains she often sees empty buses. The county audit found drivers spend 29 percent of their time on layover or traveling empty between routes. Tighter schedules could save $16 million to $23 million, the audit said, and Hutchison says she would try to save $20 million.
On the other hand, a schedule cushion helps buses stay on time and allows Metro to offer more service at peak-commute runs, General Manager Kevin Desmond has said.
"How much is that worth, how much is that reliability worth to people?" Constantine asks.
Constantine calls for preserving the future RapidRide program, to provide, in the next decade, roomier buses and more frequent service in the already busy West Seattle, Ballard, Aurora Avenue, SeaTac-Federal Way and Bellevue-Overlake-Redmond corridors.
Hutchison suggests that Metro create demonstration routes to learn which fail and which succeed. "I want to focus on providing the bus routes where they're most needed," she said.
Hutchison pounds on the issue of fare dodging — not a huge piece of the budget crisis, but an irritation to riders who pay.
Metro expects to lose $3 million this year to evasion, compared with $104 million in fare income.
Hutchison says she'd create a board of bus drivers to advise her on improving fare collections and enforcement. "It's a few million, but a few million adds up. If we're not conscientious about a few million, we're not going to be conscientious about more than that," she said.
Constantine agrees fare dodging should be reduced, but he says that's not easy.
"My opponent wants it to be the cure for all of the Metro transit shortfall," he said. "We can't have the bus drivers get in conflicts out on the road while they're trying to keep buses on schedule." Perhaps fare inspectors could be hired, he said.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.