County Council Balking at Transit Cuts?

County Councilmember Rod Dembowski

County Councilmember Rod Dembowski

Since the defeat of Prop 1 in April, many assumed that it was merely a formality for the County Council to adopt and implement the cuts to Metro service. But in a surprising and somewhat messy development, the King County Council’s Transportation, Economy, and Environment Committee, led by Chair Rod Dembowski, passed an ordinance yesterday that would implement only the September 2014 cuts, with service levels in “2015 and later…determined in a manner consistent with adopted policies and the King County budget for those years.” Citing the rising economy and the ability to further raise fares, Dembowski’s ordinance reads in part:

“An opportunity exists for the council and executive to work collaboratively with each other, stakeholders and cities throughout the county to identify alternative cost savings, efficiencies and updated estimates of revenue and expenditures that could reduce Metro’s annual budget gap, thereby decreasing the number of transit service hours required to be reduced in 2015.”

The ordinance split the Committee and passed 4-3, Dembowski being joined by suburban Republicans Hague, Lambert, and von Reichbauer. Phillips, Upthegrove, and McDermott opposed, and Dunn and Gossett were absent. If Dunn joins those four councilmembers when the ordinance goes to the full Council next week, and assuming Gossett opposes (neither of which are certain), that would mean a potential 5-4 vote to delay the bulk of the cuts. It would then be subject to a possible veto by Executive Constantine, who has said that the integrity of the public process and the Prop 1 vote requires that service be cut until new revenue materializes.

At first blush, Dembowski’s move seems like a risky punt. His plan seems to be to implement the cuts that cannot be staved off (September), try to further squeeze cash from Metro’s capital programs, defer plans to replenish Metro’s cash reserves, raise fares, and wait for a tax windfall or a generous Seattle electorate.  To the extent that the tax windfall, increased fare revenues, or city buybacks fail to materialize, it’s not clear what cuts will happen and when, or what the Council will have gained by not simply executing the cuts as proposed by the executive.

In general, I (and other STB authors) are favorable to anything that improves Metro’s cost and revenue structures in a realistic and sustainable way, and to the extent that Dembowski’s ordinance can achieve that, I am cautiously in favor. I am, however, highly resistant to delaying inevitable pain by spending down more reserves, or looting what’s left of Metro’s capital funds: that is a continuance of the pathological pain-avoidance “leadership” style which the Council has applied to Metro since the beginning of the recession. This has given us an agency that is managed by crisis, where all service planning and public outreach must take place against a background of increasingly precipitous, but uncertain, cuts. It seems to me that the sensible, good government way to approach this problem is to pass a modified cuts plan but allow Metro to add back service (according to their Service Guidelines) every service change if revenue exceeds projections.

We are reaching out to Councilmember Dembowski for further details on his thinking and will have an update in the coming days.

Comments

  1. lakecityrider says

    Nope, implement it all. First, it really bothers me that those of us who use routes being cut in September 14 keep getting the thin end of the “stood around waiting too long for everything to be OK” wedge by our politicians.

    Second, as you pointed out, this upends the whole process. Metro said “x” would happen unless “y” intervened. I don’t see any “y,” in the form of funding proposals or other efficiencies, on the table. Do not give ammunition to the “hah, Metro lied again” crowd, nor should the managing be done by the Council over those who actually run the service.

    • Brent says

      So, you really don’t think the operators will agree to an enormous pay cut?

      And that the bus fairy won’t provide more buses to run the increased service (increased over the current plan, that is) when the council scavenges Metro’s capital budget (for which fleet replacement is a large chunk)?

      And that the masses of riders won’t march forward and proclaim, “We will all gladly pay $10 for each bus trip we take!”

      And that the City of Seattle won’t gladly pay to run all the express service to Issaquah?

      And that suburban cities won’t each vote for flat car tabs to save their bus service?

      And that sales tax revenue won’t end up being 50% or so above current outdated projections?

      And that the council won’t put their money where their mouth is, and put a county property tax proposal on the November ballot to restore and increase Metro funding?

    • JayH says

      Lakecityrider has it exactly right. Many voters believed that Metro Transit was bluffing, or exaggerating. The only way to maintain credibility and restore services eventually is to cut, cut, cut. Do exactly what they propose. Then put a ballot measure back on, hopefully with a more progressive funding method, and see what the voters want.

  2. Brent says

    Taking a pessimistic view: Too many councilmembers have been listening to a certain anti-transit think tank, which has lately been pushing the talking point that service should be saved, even if the funding doesn’t exist to save it (after same think tank opposed all efforts to fund it). This appears to be a disingenuous ploy for the sake of sheer electoral party politics, and it is annoying to see anyone on the council go for it.

    A higher-level pessimistic view: Suburban politicians (of which Dembowski is now one) may want to undo the Service Guidelines, and go back to geography as the most important criterion in how service hours are allocated. 40/40/20 helped create the mess we’re in. Bringing something like that back won’t help.

    A lower-level pessimistic view: The council may be honestly confused on the concept that increasing service hours while reducing capital expenditures doesn’t work. You can’t run buses you forgot to buy. Fleet replacement is probably the largest chunk of Metro’s capital budget, but that is just a guess. Cutting the positions of those who have worked diligently and effectively to get federal funding would also be ill-advised.

    An optimistic view: The council may be open to a better fare proposal than the current flat 25-cent increase, which was dumbed down so non-bus-riders could understand that riders would be sharing in the increased costs, without getting into the nitty-gritty of how to modernize the fare collection system. I’m all for raising the cash fares even higher, so we finally have a per-ride incentive to use ORCA. Each ORCA transaction at the front of the bus saves several seconds over change fumbling. Those seconds add up, especially when a dozen buses are lined up behind you. Adding 25 cents to the cash fare for each fare category would lead to a noticeable speed up in boarding time, and a reduction in travel time, on every route. That means more service is provided without increasing the number of service hours. The pain for those least able to afford the higher cash fare would be a one-time $5 purchase of an ORCA. But if you really want to do things right, put $5 of e-purse on each new ORCA (which is similar to what other bus agencies around the country do). This won’t actually bring in much new revenue, but it would save some service, and be a tremendous improvement in the riding experience. Since Proposition 1 failed, the council is under no political obligation to follow the strict dumbed-down fare increase proposal that accompanied the proposition. Raising the cash fare for all categories ought to be something noncontroversial that the whole council can agree on. But let Metro devise the proposal, please.

    A word of caution for the council: The last thing I want to see happen is to have the council substitute their judgement for that of the professional service planners, who not only bring formidable expertise, but also have spent countless hours listening to the public at an endless series of open houses. A few hearings does not make a councilmember wiser than a service planner on this topic.

  3. says

    I don’t see the problem here. The County Council does not want to cut service, and that’s exactly the right position for them to take. Transit advocates should welcome a punt, as that gives Seattle time to pass its own solution. Dembowski’s moves aren’t a long-term solution, and aren’t even much more than a six month solution, but most transit riders will welcome anything that staves off the cuts and gives space for finding a real solution.

    • David Lawson says

      See SF Muni (although they are starting to recover) for the pitfalls of using this approach. You punt, and punt, and keep deferring capital investment and maintenance, and eventually you have an unreliable and unappealing system using ancient equipment held together by duct tape. That alienates choice riders and eventually makes the system far more expensive to run than if it had been responsibly managed.

      • VeloBusDriver says

        … not to mention increase long term costs which decrease the amount of service Metro can deploy in the future.

        A good example would be the trolley buses. Keeping the current trolleys on the road requires expensive workarounds since many of the parts are no longer available off the shelf and have to be custom manufactured.

      • says

        Muni’s problem is a lack of funding, exacerbated by cuts to state funding for transit in the late ’00s. There’s no way to deal with Muni’s problems through “responsible management” – they need capital funding to build more subways and dedicated lanes in street ROW. Both would go a long way to solving problems.

      • David Lawson says

        Given a certain amount of funding, it would have been far more responsible for them to provide a sustainable level of service with the attendant level of capital investment than to do what they did — maintain service but defer capital investment until their physical plant and equipment was a smoldering ruin that is costing billions to fix. Inadequate funding can be used sustainably or irresponsibly. I want Metro to do it sustainably.

      • Seattleite says

        David, don’t you know that only anti-transit hacks use words like ‘responsible’ or ‘sustainable’ spending. As a transit activist all you can do is stand there, shake the money tree, and hope for the best. Discussions of costs and spending are VERBOTEN!

  4. mic says

    Kick the Can, Kick the Can.
    If anyone can, our Council can.
    What are they waiting for, the next recession cycle?

    • asdf says

      In this specific situation, kicking the can down the road another couple years might not be such a bad idea. With the recession ending, sales tax revenue should increase over the next couple years, even if no increase in the rate. We will also have a new Link extension opening, which can allow some parallel service hours to be redeployed elsewhere in the system, reducing the impact.

      • Chris Stefan says

        The problem is Metro really needs its capital budget about now, substantial portions of the fleet are reaching their end of life. Sure the mechanics can try to keep some of those coaches on the road longer but that will just increase maintenance costs.

      • Brent says

        The council kicked the can 4 months. They don’t have the ability to kick the can 2 years. At least they are moving forward with the September round of cuts, which are the least painful cuts (other than removing the 158 and 159, which will survive until at least February because their elimination involves adding service to the 157 and 168).

        I’m actually looking forward to a lot of the February reorganization proposals.

      • VeloBusDriver says

        It’s not just maintenance costs that increase. Operational costs increase as older buses break down on the road and require coach changes, or worse, the wrecker to be called out and tow it back to the base to be fixed. As a result, the whole system becomes less reliable and many choice riders start to say to hell with it.

      • Chris Stefan says

        I’d hardly call deleting the night owls “painless” that one change alone is going to make transit much less useful to me. I’m not sure if it is in the proposal for the September cuts but any reduction of Evening/night service is also going to hurt, especially in Seattle.

      • Seattleite says

        Chris, my understanding is that the city is going to ‘borrow’ some money from SDOT to keep the Night Owls funded until the Seattle Only Prop 1 money comes in.

      • John Slyfield says

        Problem is that metro has already kicked the can for four years now to try to stave off these cuts. Why do we still have breda buses rolling the streets? Those are 25 years old!!! We kick the can any longer the can will be gone.

      • Glenn in Portland says

        It’s not just maintenance costs that increase. Operational costs increase as older buses break down on the road and require coach changes, or worse, the wrecker to be called out and tow it back to the base to be fixed.

        Not to disagree, but I was riding TriMet’s 200 series buses from the early 1970s fairly deep into the 2000s. It is possible to get more life out of a bus with a capitol rebuild program. However, the reality is that any bus or trolley bus built in the age before low floor buses add to the system cost due to slow boarding. You can rebuild the engine and transmission and renew electrical components to make things last longer, but there is no way to rebuild a standard bus body into a low floor bus. Once the entire fleet is low floor, then TriMet will probably go back to retiring buses decades after they should have.

        Currently, TriMet hopes to have a 100% low floor fleet by 2017.
        http://trimet.org/newbuses/

        The bus fleet in the Seattle area is huge, but a 100% low floor fleet is certainly the direction to go. On the routes here, whenever a high-floor bus shows up on a route that doesn’t normally have one, the slower operation due to slower boarding becomes painfully obvious. New buses are an investment that have to be made sooner or later anyway, but making that investment now only adds to the cost effectiveness of service because the low floor buses do the job they need to do faster.

  5. Stephen F says

    “Good government approach” and transit cuts are not synonymous. Indeed, crisis sucks. But we should and must delay *any* cuts as long as possible. This approach seems reasonable, and I expect that Metro will have higher revenue that even previously projected. The Council does have mechanisms to fix this.

    And the “Metro lied” crowd [expletive]. They never were for transit in the first place.

    • Brent says

      Why delay cutting the 152, 158, 159, and 7X? Even if we didn’t have to reduce hours, those buses could do a lot more good where the ridership is, and where there isn’t parallel train service.

      • John Bailo says

        Certainly the 158, 159 could stop at Kent Station and feed Sounder.

        Why all these rush hour buses go on I-5 is beyond me.

      • David Lawson says

        With the exception of a few neighborhood stops that relatively few people use, there are 158 and 159 buses that stop at Kent Station and feed Sounder… they’re just numbered “168.”

      • John Bailo says

        I couldn’t agree with you more. 168 from the east, 164 from the west, and in off hours, 180 can stop at Angle Lake in the future.

    • David Lawson says

      “But we should and must delay *any* cuts as long as possible.”

      Not if the way to do so is to savage capital investment and maintenance. That’s a recipe for shrinkage and huge fiscal pain in the long term.

    • Brent says

      Metro did get more sales tax revenue than originally projected last year (or, as the “Metro lied” liars said, Metro “discovered” more money), which reduced the cut from 17% to 15.7%. It would take a heckuva lot of new economic activity to stave off the remaining 15.7% cuts. Keep in mind that anything Seattle does to save its service will not be fungible to help suburban service.

      There is no bridge to 2016. Nobody has any ideas how to build that bridge to 2016. If they did, they would have brought some of those ideas up yesterday.

    • Brent says

      Staving off all cuts as long as possible gets us into the ridiculous realm of Douglasianism, in which Metro will never start new service because it has to have a plan to fund it in perpetuity.

      Even if hours didn’t have to be cut, Metro should still be pruning the emptiest service, and putting more service where ridership demand is not being met. Thankfully, that’s what the Service Guidelines say to do. Long live the Service Guidelines!

    • Stephen F says

      I’m not necessarily defending unproductive routes. But we shouldn’t cut a single hour from Metro, or at least not visible hours. We can cut inefficient routings however to “save” those hours (e.g. Alek’s South King County restructure). The Council has the ability to cut other less useful programs to fund Metro. Metro should be priority #1. Period. And the tax receipts coming in aren’t insignificant. Indeed, there’s no way they cover the entire gap, but it is quite possible to get the gap down to 10%. I stand by what I said before.

      • Brent says

        “Hours” is not what we’re trying to save. Service is what we’re trying to save. But really, we seem to be arguing semantics at this point. Are there any of the February reorg proposals you don’t think should happen?

      • Seattleite says

        Stephen F, don’t play Republican games. Find money elsewhere in the county is no different from find money in Metro. Lay out exactly what other spending items the county should cut and how much money they would generate.

  6. Joe Szilagyi says

    I have a skeptical view that this is some sort of political backdoor to poison the well in some way on the Seattle-only vote.

    • John Bailo says

      You mean, we’ll do everything possible to try and tax all of King County, but also everything to prevent a property tax from taxing ourselves?

      • Joe Szilagyi says

        I’m basically resigned at this point to other counties trying to meddle in the affairs of King County — our votes are too necessary for statewide votes, so we need to be brought to heel, right? — and for other cities to try to monkey with inside-Seattle business for similar reasons on a smaller scale. I’m not sure it’s a justified view on the County level, but it’s absolutely true on the state level. Just a hunch.

    • says

      Not sure how exactly that would work. If they delay cuts, that actually works in our favor, because it reduces voter anger at Metro. I agree on skepticism of motives, but on the face of it this doesn’t seem to be an effective way to screw Seattle.

      To be clear, I also share the concerns that raiding capital budgets is not a sustainable solution. But if the plan is to punt for six months until Seattle comes through, that’s reasonable to me.

  7. Mark Dublin says

    Rather than delay current plans on the assurance that present financial numbers will improve, let’s insist that the proponents tell us the details of the plan now. As they are doubtless eager to do.

    Will consider capital deferments case by case. But purchase of new trolleybuses is mandatory. Maybe World War Z scared me too much, but Breda fleet needs to be considered with same urgency as problem in movie.

    Except they screech louder and smell worse.

    Mark

  8. says

    Some cuts that King Co. Metro are doing is reasonable on some routes like reducing the frequency to 20 minutes from 15 minutes during the mid-day and increase the time to catch the bus by 5 minutes. So, you just really need to find funding to keep some routes that will be delete excluding the rush hour services or express runs on certain routes which a person can use a different route. Some funding will need to go to the capital budget.

  9. asdf says

    How about a transit furlough week to help balance the budget – no Metro service at all between Christmas and New Year’s, as an alternative to cutting service the rest of the year? There is nothing like a furlough to raise awareness of the need to add additional money to the system, and with several month’s notice, especially since we’d only be talking about just one week where lots of people take off anyway, people who depend on transit to get to work would have plenty of time to deal with it. For instance, they could work from home that week, take vacation, or find somebody to carpool with.

    • East Coast Cynic says

      Re eliminating transit service between xmas and New Year’s—-that would be terrible—we’re a big city of sorts, too many people have to go to work and other places within that period of time to make that feasible. You’d create all sorts of chaos on the roads, businesses would be hurt and probably cost a few people their jobs from an inability to get to work.

    • Mike Orr says

      People go to church on Christmas too… and to Seattle Center for New Year’s celebrations…

  10. MrZ says

    Regardless of funding some of the cuts and optimizations need to happen. First, and most importantly they need to show the taxpayers that yes, this will actually happen and that there’s no silver bullet. Secondly, Metro is plagued with inefficient suburban routes and services, holdovers from 40/40/20. These need to die. and die fast. When funding is restored, the funding needs to go to routes and services that are productive, even if only moderately so. The money would be further wasted providing inefficient and little used DART service. Metro also needs to look at their fare structure, and overhaul it. Eliminate the zone system, and base fares on “type” of route (Local or Express), and eliminate paper transfers in favor of ORCA and or a machine printed day pass, such as what PT is considering. And finally, Metro (and even ST, etc.) need to take a look at what services they provide for free, and what they charge for. Some cost savings could be had by charging a modest $2-4 to park at a P&R lot, to help cover the M&O and security of the facility. It’s time to stop giving parking away.

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