Bus on a fiscal cliff
Facing tunnel construction and expiring state funding, Metro is seeking help prying $75 million from Olympia. Oh, and riders may have to pay more, too
Metro and city transportation officials warn that unless Metro receives $75 million in state funding within a year, the agency could be offering fewer bus routes and hours but charging customers more.
At current funding levels, Metro projects cutting service by 14 to 16 percent by summer 2014. City and county officials say the potential service cuts, roughly equivalent in hours to losing the entirety of weekend bus service, would create an urgent transit shortage in the region.
Metro general manager Kevin Desmond said those cuts combined with looming transportation projects scheduled for State Route 99 — Alaskan Way Viaduct demolition, tunnel construction, tolling implementation, seawall replacement — would exacerbate the region’s mobility problems.
“We’ve got to find a solution,” Desmond told the Seattle City Council in a Feb. 4 presentation. “If we cut all these in June of 2014, in my view, [St. Rte. 99] will be a disaster.”
If the legislature comes through and provides $75 million, Desmond said, Metro would spend $60 million to maintain service hours and $15 million to buy buses.
Desmond went to the city council in hopes councilmembers might lobby state legislators to come up with the money to offset both the funding gap and impacts of tunnel construction. As of Feb. 8, there was no official transportation bill before state legislators.
Metro will likely seek more money from riders, too. In an email to Real Change, a Metro spokesperson said the agency’s current planning assumptions call for a fare increase in 2014, though no amount was specified. The county council must approve all fare increases, something they have a track record of doing.
In the past few years, with county approval, Metro has raised fares four times — in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011, Desmond said after the city council meeting. Taken together, that amounts to an 80 percent fare increase in about five years.
But a new fare increase would only put a dent in the $75 million Metro needs, said Bruce Nourish, assistant editor of Seattle Transit Blog. A fare hike also brings up issues of social equity, he said, as it would adversely impact low-income riders.
“It’s questionable whether it’s ethical to raise it,” Nourish said.
Seattle bus riders already pay a high fare relative to other major cities, Nourish said. A one-zone, non-peak fare on Metro costs $2.25. By comparison, he said, bus fare on San Francisco’s MUNI system is $2.
Nourish said that dismissing Metro’s predicament isn’t wise since the agency really does need extra funding to keep buses running. Otherwise, he said, “they can’t continue to operate the system.”
Desmond said Metro requires more money because two current funding streams will soon dry up.
In 2012, the state provided Metro with $32 million to prepare for looming construction along the viaduct. That money has gone to increase the number of buses on roadways, he said. The funding will expire in June 2014.
The end of mitigation funding would lead to the loss of 120 to 130 daily bus trips — roughly 7,500 daily transit seats along State Route 99.
The county also instituted a $20 increase on car tab renewals, called a “Congestion Reduction Charge.” The fee went into effect in autumn 2012, and the money amassed from it helped Metro postpone cuts it projected earlier. The $20 charge ends in 2014.
Desmond told city councilmembers during the Feb. 4 presentation that if Metro has to remove 14 percent of peak trips in June 2014 due to service cuts, “it’s not going to be a pretty picture.”
Seattle Department of Transportation Director Peter Hahn also attended the presentation. He echoed that the need for funding was urgent. He said that any shortfalls in service, combined with construction projects, will be felt well beyond downtown and greater Seattle.
“So what impacts Seattle, impacts everybody,” Hahn said.
Early work to replace the Elliott Bay Seawall is scheduled to start this year and continue until early 2018. Tunnel construction began in 2011 and is scheduled to open to traffic in late 2015. Construction of the tunnel portals will continue after the tunnel opens to traffic. Tolling would begin in 2016.
Speaking days after the meeting, Hahn said Metro’s data show that while overall ridership has grown 6 percent between 2010 and 2012, ridership related to the Alaskan Way Viaduct has increased 22 percent.
The transit agency currently operates 3.6 million bus hours a year, he said. Transit cuts projected for 2014 would lead to the loss of 600,000 annual bus hours.
Hahn said solving future transportation woes, especially with regard to regional transit, is a collective responsibility.
ORCA for all?
Last year, Metro and the city were involved in another balancing act: how to soften any blows low-income riders might experience with the end of the Ride Free Area (RFA) in September.
Metro investigated a number of strategies to mitigate the loss of a system that offered free travel downtown. The RFA — which permitted all riders to board without pay 13 hours a day, seven days a week — had existed in some form for almost 40 years (“The ride is over,” RC, April 4, 2012).
Shortly before Metro offered its last free ride, the transit agency and the city finalized a deal to run a free circulator system. The city agreed to pay the nonprofit Solid Ground $400,000 to operate the service. But the circulator only runs approximately nine hours a day Monday through Friday.
The circulator is a pilot project that will be reevaluated at the end of this year.
Nourish, of Seattle Transit Blog, said instituting a low-income fare via ORCA (One Regional Card for All) cards might help make Metro more efficient. He said that if low-income riders had access to low-fare cards, there would be less need for cash. More people paying with ORCA cards would speed up bus boarding times. It could save money and take the burden off low-income people, he said.
ORCA cards account for a significant share of Metro payments, with 60 to 65 percent of riders using cards, a Metro spokesperson wrote in an email.
The county has been looking into a low-income fare, but efficiency wasn’t the goal. Last month, the county council appointed 21 members to an advisory panel to examine low-income fares. It has support from a coalition of more than 25 social service agencies and unions that propose a regional low-income fare of 75 cents, along with a low-income monthly pass on an ORCA card (“Unions, human service agencies press council on low-income bus and light rail fares,” RC, Dec. 26, 2012). The panel will make recommendations to the county council in July.
Beyond city limits
Nourish said that even though Metro’s call for extra funding has generated recent media attention, the agency’s current fiscal predicament is not news. He said the agency announced last year that state money to mitigate construction projects would end in 2014. It didn’t make much of a splash then, but “Metro started ringing a bell a couple months ago,” he said.
City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, chair of the transportation committee, said he’s heard the call. Days after the meeting, he said it was imperative city officials pressed state legislators for funding. He said he planned a trip to Olympia to advocate for public transportation, both statewide and locally.
Rasmussen said that since the highway is one of the few north-south connectors in the city, ensuring transit moved efficiently was important for mobility throughout the region. “All our roads are linked,” he said. “Our lives don’t stop at the city limits.”
Local mayors agree. Mayor Mike McGinn, along with 22 other mayors, sent a letter last month to legislators that stated “we are gravely concerned about the urgent and unmet need for transportation funding.” As part of a potential funding program, the mayors suggested allowing city councils or citizens to vote on doubling the vehicle licensing fee from $20 to $40.
Metro’s Desmond said he’s anxious to see what happens during the legislative session. Waiting for next year to hear about funding could be too late, he said.
Service cuts and construction projects would prove a burdensome mix for everyone in the region, Desmond said, but particularly to transit riders who use State Route 99. He said some bus riders on that roadway have come to expect efficient transit.
Days after the RFA ended, Metro started two new RapidRide lines. While the D line from Ballard often ran into traffic, the C line, which connects West Seattle to downtown, offered speedy service. Part of the C line took commuters over the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
Desmond said that if Metro can’t get $75 million and has to resort to service cuts, there would still be buses that travel along State Route 99: “There just won’t be enough seats for everyone.”
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.