I occasionally see the argument that Seattle should separate from King County Metro, which would replace the foibles of the King County Council with those of the Seattle City Council. Usually this proposal rests on the widely-held thesis that Seattle “subsidizes” the rest of the county. As I’ve argued before, worrying about cross-subsidy is a terrible way to approach these issues, but the underlying facts show this assertion to be simply false under reasonable assumptions.
Thanks to annualized Fall 2012 data provided by King County Metro, I’ve broken down all of the agency’s platform hours* into multiple bins. Out of a total of 3,461,387 service hours over the system’s 208 routes:
- 1,544,511 (44.6%) are one- and two-digit routes that are clearly within the Seattle city limits. Add to this 2,030 hours for the the 217, which is actually a reverse-peak route, and that’s 44.7% of all service.
- 700,816 (20.2%) are two-way, two-zone routes, meaning they reasonably serve residents of both jurisdictions. These include routes with long suburban segments but decent two-way demand (150, 255, 271) and routes that are primarily in Seattle but for a relatively minor terminus in a suburb (120, 358).
- 1,214,030 (35.1%) are “three-digit” routes that never enter Seattle, or enter Seattle solely as a peak-direction bus.
Although we won’t consider it below, it’s important to remember that Sound Transit’s subarea accounting allocates 100% of the cost of ST Express to its suburban subareas, and none to North King. Whatever you think of the overall balance of riders on these routes, Seattle inarguably gets more than zero benefit from this service.
The revenue side is somewhat murkier, given the complexities of ORCA revenue sharing, transfer slips, and the like. In calendar year 2012, Metro collected “approximately $162.5m” in taxes from Seattle, with the fiscal year (Nov-Oct) 2012 county-wide total at $402m. That’s about 40.4% coming from the city, or less than Seattle’s service allocation even if you charge 100% of the two-way routes to the suburbs.
A further $133.8m came from farebox revenue in 2012. Setting aside other revenue sources, 30.3% of it comes from sales tax in Seattle, 44.7% from sales tax elsewhere, and 25% from fares. It is hard to parse this by municipality, but if we assume that farebox revenue is directly proportional to boardings, the split would be 54%, 20%, and 26%** from the three route groupings above. This somewhat understates the suburban contribution because the average two-zone fare was $1.61, vs. $1.09 for one-zone travel. If we credit Seattle with half of the two-zone/two-fare ridership, Seattle contributes 46% of the revenue that funds Metro, 44% with one-zone only.
In other words, Seattle would basically break even if it took all the one-and-two-digit routes along with their fares and the tax revenue, as long as the County continued to fund the two-way service out of generosity. Whether that scenario is a plausible one is left to the reader, but it’s definitely not a story of Seattle service gutted by exporting money to the suburbs.
Of course, this provincial argument about who benefits is ultimately unresolvable. Plenty of suburban residents utilize a Seattle route for some of their trips, and Seattle benefits when suburbanites come by transit rather than car — or rather than not at all. Most importantly, everyone benefits from the free flow of people around the region in ways that alleviate pollution and congestion. And of course the revenue itself largely comes from sales tax, and it’s hardly unheard of for Seattle to shop at Southcenter, or Bellevue to shop downtown.
It’s entirely reasonable, in the interests of maximizing the productivity of the system, that the majority of spending would occur in dense, urban districts, in the same way that social services money flows from King County to substantially poorer counties in Eastern Washington. Nevertheless, the likely reduction in overall service hours and loss of economies of scale will overwhelm any possible governance improvements associated with a separate Seattle transit agency. A separate Seattle Transit is not a solution to any of the problems with our bus network.
*These are “platform hours” — hours the bus is running — not “revenue hours”, when it’s carrying passengers. All of the deadhead costs of peak expresses from nowhere are already baked into it.
** Based on Fall 2012 boardings data Metro provided me.