June 18, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 25


Metro’s fairness tool comes under fire in the debate over how to cut transit service

By Aaron Burkhalter / Staff Reporter

In September, Metro will begin cutting bus routes that are the lowest performing 25 percent. Three additional phases will make changes to existing routes and maps.

Photo by Jon Williams / Arts Editor

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At the center of King County Councilmembers’ ongoing discussion of how to cut Metro bus routes is a system that is supposed to bring fairness to the county’s transit planning.

In 2010, Metro and the King County Council created a strategic planning tool that uses data analysis to create, cut and revise bus routes. The tool was devised as a way to end the political jockeying that often clouded the transit planning process.

That tool was slated to be put to use after voters rejected a proposal to fill Metro’s $75 million budget deficit with a sales tax and car tab fees in April. Metro proposed a 16 percent reduction in bus service to balance the budget, the largest test of the organization’s strategic planning tool meant to equitably reduce Metro service.

But council members considered delaying the Metro cuts in order to give the nine-member body and the community more time to study some of the service cuts and find savings and revenue elsewhere to preserve routes.

The move has re-inserted politics into what thus far has been a neutral process, said Rob Johnson, executive director of Transportation Choices, a transit advocacy organization.

Metro’s metrics, not political whims, are supposed to guide changes to transit, Johnson said.

Abandoning the current system, “would allow anyone who could get five votes to preserve routes regardless of merit,” he said at a King County Council meeting June 9.

The challenge to Metro’s fairness tool emerged when Councilmember Rod Dembowski, a Democrat, proposed the delay with the support of the council’s four Republican members. He wanted to see if additional tax revenue comes in this fall and if a Seattle initiative to fund local bus routes can save the cuts. He also wanted more time to discuss some of the specific cuts Metro proposed, including eliminating Dial-a-Ride services.

“A time-out would give us and Metro time to engage in a rich dialogue,” Dembowski said.

The five remaining Democrats supported moving forward with the schedule of cuts, explaining that the county could buy back buses later if funding materializes. Councilmember Dave Upthegrove said the cuts need to meet three criteria: “Number one, it should be based on what our finances look like today; number two, it should honor the service guidelines that were developed to keep politics out of route decisions; and number three, it must keep as many buses on the road as possible,” Upthegrove said at the council meeting.

Dembowski’s measure passed by one vote June 9, but County Executive Dow Constantine vetoed it the next day.

The old way

Prior to 2010, King County councilmembers used what was known as the 40/40/20 rule to make regional transit decisions. That rule stated that new routes had to be distributed throughout the county, with 40 percent going to East King County, 40 percent to South King County and 20 percent to North King County.

The 40/40/20 approach ended up creating low-performing bus routes in communities that didn’t need that much service and left crowded buses in Seattle, said Andrew Austin, policy director for Transportation Choices.

The strategic plan allowed data to drive the conversation: “Using the strategic planning guidelines gives Metro the most predictability,” Austin said.

Under the new tool, bus service is evaluated with the following formula: 50 percent on bus performance, 25 percent geography and 25 percent social equity. Transit planners evaluate how many people ride the bus, whether other buses are serving the same need and whether the neighborhood has more low-income people who rely on public transit.

Support for the present system

Rebecca Saldaña, deputy director for community relations at Puget Sound Sage, a think tank supported by local labor unions, said advocates for social equity are pleased with Metro’s data-based planning tool.

“We don’t want to mess with the guidelines,” she said. “We just want to make sure they’re more effective.”

Saldaña noted that in the first round of cuts in September, there are only a handful of routes that will really harm low-income communities. Metro’s current process isn’t perfect, she said, but it’s something that stakeholders such as Puget Sound Sage can help improve.

Dembowski said he appreciates Metro’s current planning process, but thinks councilmembers should be able to make changes based on public comments.

People may bring forward other concerns about social equity that Metro did not consider, Dembowski said.

“We need to look at the facts and analyze the facts, including testimony,” he said.

What’s next for Metro

Metro’s proposed schedule stretches the changes out over a year, but each one is significant, said Victor Obeso, Metro’s service development manager.

In September, Metro will cut the routes that are the lowest performing 25 percent.

The three next phases will make major changes to bus routes, combining multiple routes into one, reducing routes and changing route maps.

Each phase involves changes as significant as when Metro ended the Ride Free Area and changed routes in September of 2012. That will happen four times in the next year.

“The impacts are significantly harsher, because we’re reducing our overall system,” Obeso said. “It will become less convenient for people.”



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