The gist of the Times‘s no on Prop 1 editorial ($) is that King County should not replace the expiring tab fee, but instead avoid cuts through the magic of vaguely-specified cost controls. Suggesting that after years of efficiency-oriented service changes, administrative belt-tightening, and multiple fare increases, the deficit can be willed away by more of the same demands a detailed plan to show the numbers, but the Times betrays its fundamental unseriousness by providing only generic union-bashing and right wing talking points about trimming fat.
Their first vague solution is to “reduce labor costs.” Of course, the County can’t simply do that by fiat; it has to be collectively bargained. Personally, I think it would be great for riders if the Amalgamated Transit Union agreed to further cuts in total pay and benefits beyond what they’ve already conceded, and there likely are fair ways to do that. But the Times doesn’t say what compensation level would be acceptable to call off their jihad on transit. How should pay and benefits go down? How much can Metro reasonably recover? Is it enough to avert cuts? Without answers to these, this point is generic union-bashing.
Their second “solution” is to raise fares. A 25 cent fare increase yields about $6.6m annually. With a $60m annual budget gap, that implies a fare increase of $2.25, to $4.50 off-peak/$4.75 one-zone/$5.25 two-zone, if there were no decrease in ridership. Setting aside entirely the social impact on riders, at those prices Metro will have trouble competing with driving on subsidized highways with subsidized gasoline to subsidized parking spaces, and so it won’t actually plug the revenue gap. By suppressing ridership, it is likely to increase Metro’s cost per rider.
Their third source of savings is that old chesnut, “administration.” What positions should Metro eliminate? Public outreach? Service planning? Transit security? The people who clean bus stops? How many millions will that save? Metro’s administrative staff roster was slashed in the early 2000s as part of the cuts arising from I-695, notably including elimination of more than half of the community relations staff, who solicit customer feedback on service changes, and the entire long-range planning team. Where’s the fat to be cut? Again, the Times has nothing useful to say, it merely regurgitates generic talking points.
If the Times board were serious about increasing efficiency, they might start reading STB, where we’ve spent years figuring out how to reduce cost per rider:
- Construct more light rail. Transit agencies must pay for the most expensive part of service — the driver — by the hour. The more people a driver can move in an hour the cheaper each person is. Link runs fast through urban centers, has ample capacity and the marginal cost of a new rider is essentially zero. Extending Link and restructuring bus services to feed the rail network is a investment, in the true sense of spending one-time capital money to save running cost and serve more customers forever, but the Times ed. board can’t be bothered with such substantive suggestions, preferring instead to bleat vaguely about “cost control”.
- Restructure the route network to be more frequent for the same cost. If the Times ed board would pay some attention to these fights — and come in on the right side — it would do more good for the system than making deep cuts and assuming that the process will, by means unspecified, increase efficiency.
- More capital investment. STB was all-in on the 2011 Seattle license fee that would have dedicated $100m over 10 years to bus speed and reliability improvements – making buses run faster with more riders, improving both the numerator and denominator of cost-per-rider. The current prop. 1 detractors were, uh, not as excited about this opportunity, but it still exists, both in Seattle and in the suburbs. The return on investment of some of these projects is astronomical.
- Charging for use of oversubscribed park-and-rides generates revenue and will boost ridership through more efficient use of spaces.
- Put transit stations next to ridership centers, rather than hiding them a few blocks away to “minimize impacts.” The Times’s friends in the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce have been working against this for years.
- Aggressive policy focus on densifying the region’s urban centers as much as as possible.
- Highway projects that actually integrate transit access, rather than treating as it an afterthought to be cut when times are tough.
- Redirect the enormous fiscal and regulatory emphasis on easy and cheap car access everywhere, including: untolled freeways and chokepoints; regulatory parking minimums; below-market-rate, publicly owned street parking; the $656m sales tax exemption for gasoline; tax breaks for employer-provided parking; speed limits that kill pedestrians and bicyclists; and extremely valuable urban land set aside for freeways and their expansion.
If the Times is so interested in peer-agency efficiency comparisons, perhaps it should seek to replicate the conditions of peer agencies. Specifically, we should try to approach the density of our peer cities, seriously accommodate someone other than car drivers, and have a rail network of about the same quality and scope. I would welcome a plausible and actionable plan to maintain service levels while allowing the CRC to expire without replacement, but I don’t think I’m going to see one.
What insightful readers will note is that few actual efficiency measures are in the purview of Metro; the Times and the anti-transit crowd aren’t interested in many of them; and STB, which actually is interested in efficiency, supports Prop. 1, as time has run out to hope for long-term reforms. Perhaps voters interested in their transit system should listen to people who actually care about transit.