SunBreak | Who Made King County Transit the tunnel fall guy?

When King County Metro looks forward to 2014, the agency sees thunderclouds. But the looming budget crisis isn’t one of the agency’s making. It stems from a 2009 agreement on the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement project, approved by ex-Governor Gregoire, ex-King County Executive Sims, and ex-Mayor Nickels.

Once construction began, Washington State’s Department of Transportation would pay King County Metro $32 million to aid with traffic congestion: “for more buses and more service hours so people could get out of their cars, as Highway 99 construction narrowed traffic to two lanes each direction,” as Mike Lindblom reports in the Seattle Times.

But that funding is due to end in June 2014 — the same year as a temporary $20 car-tab fee, instituted to prevent Metro service cuts, expires. The plan was to return Metro to firmer financial footing with a permanent car-tab fee but none of the signatories had the power to do that. Only the State Legislature could, and so far, they haven’t.

What Gregoire, Sims, and Nickels could do was present everyone with a fait accompli: a construction megaproject in midstream, and the promise of gridlock if more funds aren’t made available. Specifically, says  Metro chief Kevin Desmond ”about 125 daily bus trips and 7,500 daily transit seats will be lost — while tunnel construction and viaduct demolition continues into 2016.”

That’s not to mention that the massive central waterfront renovation won’t finish until the end of 2019, the chance that the tunnel project will go into overtime, or the tolling to pay for the tunnel that is expected to divert more traffic to downtown streets.

(Transit wonks will find City Councilmember Richard Conlin’s reaction amusing: Conlin, reports Lindblom, wondered, ”why did the state support extra buses for only half the Highway 99 construction period, instead of until the tunnel opening, scheduled for early 2016?” This is the same Conlin who controversially elbowed past the Mayor to sign go-ahead documents for WSDOT.)

Metro is justifiably proud of what they’ve achieved so far: “Bus ridership on the viaduct increased 22 percent — nearly 17,000 new daily riders,” says Desmond. “There are now 25,000 fewer vehicles on the viaduct every day, a 23 percent decline that is helping everyone keep moving.”

Keep in mind that a 2010 Commute Seattle survey (pdf) found that 42 percent of downtown commuters traveled on public transit — it was the single largest mode of transportation, beating out solo drivers at 35 percent. On an average weekday in Seattle, there are 300,000 transit boardings.

That success cuts no ice with low-information Seattle Times commenters, many of whom seem to believe Metro prefers cadging dollars this way.

Why doesn’t Metro increase fares, they ask? In fact, the King County Council has already approved four fare increases between 2008 and 2011, for a total increase of 80 percent. Currently the peak one-zone fare is $2.50, and $3.00 for two zones. Operating revenue for 2011, at 29.4 percent of expenses, handily exceeded the target of 25 percent.

Why isn’t Metro more efficient, they cry. In 2011, Metro instituted performance audit suggestions that should yield $20 million in savings each year, while scheduling changes are saving nearly 120,000 service hours annually. Transit looky-loos often complain about half-empty buses, but they aren’t half-empty at rush hour – and Metro can only make marginal gains from cost per boarding during non-peak hours. In any event, cutting bus routes or not is often a political decision.

There is one major factor behind Metro’s chronic budget problems, and that is that its revenue is based off sales tax revenue, which slumped during the recession, and is only this year anticipated to reach 2006′s revenue. It was an inverse relationship: the less money Metro had, the more ridership demand increased. In the five years since the recession set in, nothing substantive has been done to change that.

The SunBreak is an online magazine of news & culture. A conversation about the things on Seattle’s mind.

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5 thoughts on “SunBreak | Who Made King County Transit the tunnel fall guy?

  1. I don’t mean to sound like one of those looky-loos criticizing half-empty buses, but I would like to see Metro consider much more aggressive congestion pricing. The difference between peak and non-peak pricing is absurdly small ($2.25 off peak versus $2.50 peak). What if it was $1 off peak and $4 peak?

    Like a lot of things, all the costs are for Metro are associated with handling peak load. The marginal cost of a passenger in off peak times is very small, just the cost of the bus moving, which is mostly the cost of gas. Everything else, from the bus itself to the driver, is already paid for, since it’s already necessary to handle peak time load.

    A much larger price difference between peak and non-peak times might encourage people who can to shift their commute by an hour or two, from peak time to off peak time, as well as encourage more people to take the bus rather than drive at off peak times, which would fill those half-empty buses during mid-day and reduce the crowds at rush hour times.

  2. Interesting thought, Greg. I might say the $4 price is a bit too high, your idea shows somebody is thinking outside of the box.

    Frankly, I am sick of the social engineering game these transportation clowns keep playing with us. Why not just charge $3 or so round the clock. People still need to get from point A to point B. I’m just not sure folks working downtown for $12 an hour can afford $4 to get to and from work when they’re likely already getting gouged on rent on the hill.

    According to the story, the tunnel project lasts until 2016 and the money until 2014. Let me remind everyone that the present mayor HELD UP the project for 2 years jerking the citizens of Seattle around, creating delays and INCREASING THE COST. It’s no wonder Metro is worried about more money. I don’t mind the $20 tab add-on, but I know not everybody can afford it.

  3. Just for laughs, why don’t you do a little calculation? Calculate 40 hours at minimum wage. Imagine you had to live on that, and pay for everything. Then calculate the differential that you’re suggesting. Imagine what that would do to your standard of living. Now imagine how it would affect someone who might even be supporting a family, and who takes the bus not because they don’t prefer to drive, but because they have no choice.

  4. Personally I think it’s more efficient and raises more revenue to just do it through extending the extra $20 car tab fee and I think that’s what will happen–it will get extended another couple years and perhaps increased slightly. The $20 or $40 dollars a year it costs per car is hardly something that should get people too worked up. At that level it legally needn’t go to voters and won’t. BTW, I do own a car so I’m not saying put the bill on someone else. I pay the bill too.