The ‘no’ campaign likes to assert that we should spend a lot more money on buses, because we need a solution now, and not on light rail. What’s behind this logic, and why is it bad? With 30-40% ridership increases becoming common this year, wouldn’t it be great to just add a lot of buses?
No, and there’s a really simple reason. Our perfect example is Metro.
Metro collects .9% local sales tax right now, and I think most who read this blog are aware that they’re in seriously bad shape due to rising fuel costs. They’re capped out. They can’t raise fares that much at once, and the state legislature doesn’t allow them to collect any more sales tax than they already do. They’re between a rock and a hard place.
Let’s say Sound Transit were to do the same thing – put all their money into expansion of bus service, right away, and put their capital funds into some more HOV lanes. Let’s examine what this solves – and what this doesn’t solve.
First, despite massive exaggeration in the media of the amount of money Sound Transit works with, they really couldn’t afford to do something like replace the ship canal bridge, or widen I-5 in Seattle. While it seems like digging a tunnel would cost more than that, it’s likely cheaper simply because you don’t have to reroute a bunch of traffic to do it, or pay to tear down hundreds of buildings. So through our core, there would be no improvement in quality of service, except that buses would run more often. As we see in Seattle already, the congestion these buses encounter means additional runs, lower headways, just result in buses bunching up. You get one wheelchair user or an altercation with a driver, and the bus behind you can catch up.
Second, and this is the killer… what happens when those buses are filled up? You wouldn’t have spent your money on permanent right of way, so you’d just have to collect more tax money. Sound Transit 2’s operating costs drop dramatically (and the taxes are rolled back to a lower level) as soon as construction is complete. Sure, we might authorize another expansion, but that’s a choice we’ll get to make then. With Metro, we don’t get a choice.
So in the short term, sure, 15-20% more bus service isn’t all we’ll need, but if we were to spend entirely on buses, we would never have the long term solution. Each of our light rail projects will not only serve people, but they’ll free up bus resources for Metro that we can’t get any more money for without going to the legislature. That’s something we should fix too, but this can only help.