Bus cuts are back on the table in King County because the temporary fee that prevented massive cuts a couple of years ago is set to expire in the spring of 2014. If the state legislature does not provide more options for transit agencies to preserve bus service, King County Metro will have to cut 17 percent of service, affecting 70 percent of the county’s bus riders. Planning for the cuts would have to start this fall. This is especially bad news as transit demand and population in the Puget Sound region continue to grow.
Take a few seconds to imagine if your bus was cut entirely or service was significantly reduced. You would have to find an alternate, more expensive way to get to work and other destinations. Roads would be packed with even more people forced to drive at peak times. How would you avoid traffic on game days? How would your elderly neighbor get to her doctor’s appointment? Every person in King County — drivers and bus riders alike — would be negatively affected if legislators forced these cuts.
Public transportation in Washington state is primarily funded by sales tax, which makes it especially vulnerable to changes in the economy. Unfortunately, the state legislature has authorized almost no other viable options for transit funding; as a result local communities don’t have the ability to choose a different revenue source. On top of that, the state provides very little dedicated funding for public transportation: only 2 percent of the Metro’s funding, compared with more than 20 percent for agencies in many other states, counties or cities. This leaves Metro with few options but to cut service.
Two years ago, the legislature authorized — and the King County Council passed — a temporary congestion reduction charge to stave off massive bus cuts until the legislature could identify a more sustainable, reliable funding source for transit. The congestion reduction charge is set to expire in 2014, and there is still no solution in sight.
Or maybe we just need to look in a different place.
To stop the cuts and threats of cuts, two things need to happen. We need the state to invest more in transit across Washington. And we need additional, diverse, local funding options to keep a reliable bus system.
Transit agencies across Washington are asking the state for $400 million per year over 10 years to help maintain current service or to return cuts that we have seen in the last few years. Another $400 million per year over 10 years is needed if there is any hope to improve service and meet growing demands for enhanced transit service. We are indifferent about which revenue source gets used for transit: It could be a newly levied gas tax, emissions tax, carbon tax, vehicle fees or license fees.
In addition to the direct state investments, three bills that would expand local options for transit agencies are currently being considered. Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D–N. Seattle, sponsored HB 1959, which would give King County the authority to levy a motor vehicle excise tax (MVET) for transit and county roads. There is also a local options bill up for debate in Snohomish (HB 1953) and Pierce (HB 1898) counties.
Our legislators in Olympia have until April 28 to make decisions on transportation spending — unless lawmakers decide to go into special sessions. They are considering a transportation funding package that may or may not increase funds for transit. They will also consider bills that would grant local governments and transit agencies the option to raise transit revenue from sources other than sales tax. We must let our legislators know that we expect them to reverse continued underinvestment in transit and direct more state transportation dollars to this vital public service. And we want local communities to have more options for funding transit service.
To have a thriving city and community, we all need the opportunity to get where we need to go, and we want our transit to be affordable and safe. Investing in transit gives us options to drive less often, therefore keeping more money in our pockets instead of handing it over to oil companies.
Transit also keeps traffic moving and relieves congestion. A fully loaded bus can accommodate 90 riders, which can remove as many as 90 cars from roads when they’re most congested. We must find a more sustainable and fair way to fund a thriving bus system that works for all people.