August 20, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 34

Feature

Taking the low route

By Rosette Royale / Interim Editor

Metro is seeking cities willing to 'buy back' bus service. For many, the price is too high

Graphics by Jon Williams, Real Change

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Officials in several King County cities say the cost of a proposed program to buy back Metro bus service may be too expensive, and transit advocates say the program may signal bad news for low-income riders.

County Executive Dow Constantine announced a plan this spring where cities could pay for specific Metro routes, to counteract upcoming cuts to 17 percent of countywide bus service. Called the Community Mobility Contract program, it would charge cities the full cost to operate a particular route or routes in an area.

Since Constantine introduced the Community Mobility Contract program, Metro officials say that eight cities — Mercer Island, Bellevue, Federal Way, Shoreline, Kirkland, Burien, Tukwila, Snoqualmie and Seattle — have expressed interest. But municipal interest may be trumped by a lack of money.

“I’m suspecting that it’s going to be something that we can’t afford,” said Noel Treat, Mercer Island city manager.

Treat said Metro officials attended a Mercer Island City Council meeting in July to discuss ways the city could address service cuts, including by contracting with Metro for service. No cost estimates were provided then, and as of Aug. 11, the city still hadn’t received a figure, said Treat.

In an email to Treat from Metro, transit officials said the cost of a route would be determined using various criteria: Number of operating hours; whether service is peak-only or all-day; number of miles traveled; vehicle type (Metro primarily uses 40- and 60-foot-long diesel hybrids or electric trolleys); and bus fleet use or financing costs.

Regardless of the cost, Mercer Island’s budget is tight, Treat said. It will be impossible to purchase Metro service for the city of 23,000 once cuts begin this fall, he added.

“Our citizens that are reliant on [Metro bus service] are going to have to find alternatives,” Treat said.

Rob Johnson, executive director of Transportation Choices Coalition, said that with Metro strapped for cash, contracts with cities to buy back full-cost service might herald a new future for regional transit.

“I feel like it’s a bad idea whose time has come,” Johnson said.

Having to provide transit through a city-by-city approach could force cities to consider ballot measures that ask voters to purchase routes, Johnson said. If those ballot measures fail, low-income people who don’t have cars will lose a vital link to jobs that can increase their economic mobility. 

Rachel Bianchi, communications and government relations manager for Tukwila, said the city had a preliminary conversation with Metro about mobility contracts, but officials put on the brakes because the city didn’t have enough information.

“There’s nothing to have a conversation about until we understand more,” Bianchi said.

In Snoqualmie, city administrator Bob Larson said conversations about entering into a mobility contract have stalled not due to lack of information but due to lack of finances.

“We don’t have the resources at this time,” Larson said.

Neither does Metro. The transit agency currently faces an annual deficit of $75 million. To address this shortfall, it plans to cut 72 routes and reduce or revise another 84.

The cuts and revisions would come in four stages: September 2014, February 2015, June 2015 and September 2015. Any new mobility contracts with Metro to purchase service wouldn’t stop cuts planned for the fall.

Victor Obeso, a service development manager with Metro, said that while a handful of cities have expressed varying levels of interest, many still voiced concerns about the potential terms of the contracts. From Metro’s perspective, the contracts would require cities to pay 100 percent for the route.

“We need to fully recover costs,” Obeso said.

The mobility contract program differs from current, less expensive partnerships Metro has with cities and business groups.

In 2013, 10 different entities — ranging from individual cities to city-business alliances or groups of businesses — purchased service on more than 60 routes. Some of those cities and groups paid one-third of the cost of service, while Metro picked up two-thirds. The only cities with 2013 contracts interested in beginning new mobility contracts are Bellevue and Seattle.

Collectively, the 10 cities and groups paid $11.6 million last year, while Metro paid some share of service costs, depending upon the type of contract.

Under Constantine’s mobility contract program, Metro would pay nothing.

Metro officials say the contracts cannot come at the expense of other cities or service. Metro also says the program is “intended as a bridge to keep buses on the street until the state legislature provides a sustainable funding tool for local transportation needs.”

Of the eight cities that have sought information about mobility contracts, Seattle hopes to generate funds to purchase service.

But funding Seattle-only routes depends upon the largesse of voters.

This November, Seattle voters will decide the fate of a transportation measure that asks for a 0.1 percent sales tax increase and a $60 car-tab fee.

City officials estimate that if the measure passes, it could raise $45 million annually for 10 years.

Of that $45 million, Seattle would set aside $3 million to maintain “cross-jurisdiction” routes with businesses or neighboring cities. None of those routes have been determined.

Another $2 million would pay for a program so low-income vehicle owners could receive a $20 rebate on car-tab fees.

Metro’s Obeso said that the mobility contracts are an interim fix to maintain a regional transit system, one that relies upon cities paying a route’s full cost.

Johnson, of Transportation Choices Coalition, said altering countywide Metro service so it’s dependent on an individual city’s ability to pay for it puts low-income riders in jeopardy.

“But the alternative — cutting that system — is way worse,” Johnson said.

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