Monday afternoon, the County Council voted to table an ordinance incorporating the February 2015 Metro cuts recently proposed by an ad hoc committee of County Executive Dow Constantine and a few Councilmembers. The Council’s decision has the effect of postponing the 2015 cuts indefinitely. Without further action, Metro will continue to operate the same network it operates today, with this week’s cuts remaining in place.
The Council’s action was surprising because it approved the February cuts in principle just two months ago. That resulted from a compromise between a Council faction led by Councilmember Rod Dembowski, who sought in June to postpone all of the cuts except for this week’s, and Constantine, who doggedly insisted that all but a few of the cuts remained necessary despite higher forecast revenues.
A couple of things have changed since July, though. First, King County’s Office of Economic and Financial Analysis (OEFA), which is independent of either the Executive or the Council, released a new forecast with a significant increase in projected sales-tax revenue. Second, Constantine released his 2015-16 proposed budget, which substantially reduced the number of hours that needed to be cut — although it continued to treat the February cuts, along with another small future round of cuts, as necessary.
Yesterday afternoon, I caught up with both Dembowski and Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond by phone. Each was gracious, knowledgeable, and willing to talk about the situation in substantive detail. Their answers revealed a real philosophical divide about how to manage potential risks to the Metro system, and helped clarify a situation which those who follow Metro (including all STB staffers) have found very confusing. I’ll present a summary of each view below the jump.
First, though, I should provide a bit of background that’s necessary to understand either one. Twice before, Metro has been affected by funding crises at times when it had promised to expand. In 2000, the combined effect of Tim Eyman’s Initiative 695, which eliminated Metro’s permanent motor-vehicle excise tax (MVET) funding, and that year’s “dot-com” recession resulted in a failure to implement 400,000 hours of new service which had been promised to riders in the late 1990s. Again in 2006, Metro promised nearly 600,000 hours of new service through the voter-approved “Transit Now” sales-tax increase, and again Metro found itself using the revenue to backfill existing service instead when the Great Recession hit.