Andrew commented recently on how Metro’s budget shortfall may threaten RapidRide, and that sparked a little bus-vs.-rail war in the comments (perhaps anticipating the Seattle Times’s inflammatory headline this morning).  Although there’s a lot of anti-BRT schadenfreude on this blog, the core assertion is relatively mild: that rail is vastly superior on certain corridors.  Everyone here agrees that buses have a place.  On top of that, we’ll have a long wait for a comprehensive rail system even under very positive assumptions.  As a result, it’s proper to have BRT along some corridors that, in a perfect world, would be rail.

That said, I’d like to step beyond that skirmish and say that I think the implication that RapidRide is threatened by its own shortcomings is not the right way to think about what Metro is trying to do.  Transit Now didn’t create a new agency to run RapidRide.  Rather, it was an increase in Metro’s generic funding level, tied to a bunch of promises of what they would do with the additional funding.

As we all know, a variety of factors have conspired to wreck the budget projections that underpinned Transit Now.  That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that RapidRide is in trouble.

Rather, Metro faces a general budget shortfall that’s going to have to be made up with some combination of revenue increases and service cuts.  Because we live in the real world, the King County Council is going to pick from a menu of bad options by picking the most politically palatable ones, with a bit of actual technical analysis perhaps thrown in.

If you’re like me, you recently received a big Transit Now brochure in your mailbox.  It’s clear that Metro has politically doubled down on RapidRide, which makes it harder for the Council to axe such a prominent promise.  Beyond that, I can’t really say if the budget shortfall is likely to hit RapidRide or something less visible.

Instead of wringing our hands about RapidRide, the useful contribution is to be active in letting the Council know what your priorities are.  Is RapidRide more important to you than some other bus service in your neighborhood?  Would you rather see fares shoot up by 50 or 75 cents rather than see any service cuts?  Let your councilmember know!

What’s not constructive is the statement “Please cut a service that doesn’t affect me to preserve that which I use.”  For example, if you live and work in Seattle, “abolish 20/40/40!” isn’t useful.  The service increases that it creates weren’t designed to serve you, so you’re not really making any tradeoffs when you oppose buses to North Bend.  Similarly, Metro has capped out its revenue authority, so asking the County for higher sales taxes isn’t really helpful.

Personally, I’m in favor of steep fare increases to preserve all the service promises.  But what are you willing to give up in the new economic climate?  Less service, different service, or higher fares?  Property taxes?  Cuts to other (specific) parts of the county budget?  Share your opinion in the comments.

24 Replies to “Metro Priorities”

  1. Considering politics for a second, if you were running against Ron Sims, and you were on the council, why wouldn’t you want to cancel is pet project?

    1. I’m not sure I would support someone who cancels a major transit project — especially for political points. The council allowed this plan to go to the ballot, they have a responsibility to deliver it.

      To answer Martin’s query, I believe that there should be service cuts for routes that have the highest cost per passenger like ST (yes Martin, I’m calling out 20/20/40). I think that two-zone fares off-peak should be higher to offset the cost of fuel. I support the MVET for transit that is being floated. Property taxes, perhaps temporary, sound like a good idea. Lobby for a few million from the state. Work to get the West Seattle RapidRide line funded in part with Viaduct money if we go with a surface/transit option. And yes, RapidRide to West Seattle and Ballard should be top priorities.

      I wouldn’t want to be in charge of these decisions… But look, if you cut RapidRide you cut something clearly defined. If you cut bus service and Transit Now improvements in general, you cut something that’s harder for your opponents, papers, or the public to define. I think seeing a major transit promise like RapidRide fail hurts transit in the region — just like the monorail gets brought up half the time you want to talk about Link light rail.

      1. I bet the infrastructure investments are safer than the service, which I have heard never really panned out in the numbers to begin with.

        I think Sims will get the political blame either way if service is cut, whether it’s the removal of new service or cutting existing service.

        It’s a tough call.

        As for a fare increase, there were 110,000,000 boardings in 2007, even just 10¢ gets you $11 million.

      2. It doesn’t get you $11m, because a lot of those 110m boardings are passes. You’d also have to raise pass rates, which again only affects some passes, due to flexpass and upass agreements you’re not going to be able to change.

  2. I’d be ok with property tax increases for bus service. I’d really be in favor of gas taxes (call it a sin tax, if you will). But I’m not a big fan of fare increases. As it is I avoid buses when I can walk, bike, and even if I can drive (i.e. when parking is free), because buses are expensive* for short trips. Keeping fares competitive is important to keeping ridership high, which benefits everyone.

    * Here’s where a commenter will call me a hypocrite for commenting on this blog and not being willing to take the bus everywhere. I love the bus, and always look for a reason to take it. But within Seattle, unless talking about downtown parking fees, it’s expensive compared to even a car. Yes, a change in pricing schemes can change this. Feel free to post a ranting response.

  3. I’m not a huge fan of fare increases seeing as how my employer doesn’t care about transit subsidies too much since they didn’t cover the fares before the last increase (all the bosses drive from the northern ‘burbs). However, being a consultant by trade, I understand that the money has to come from somewhere.

    It kills me when I’m riding the ever crowded 41 in the mornings and there’s a crowd of people who walked down from Capitol Hill and SLU to the first tunnel stop for a free ride. Here are people who could easily afford the 1.50 peak trip, but they’re in the free ride area and don’t seem to mind when they hop on the bus without considering the people who had to step off the bus to clear the doorway. I’ve seen paying passengers from Northgate nearly get stuck at the Convention Center because of that. If all those people had to pay, I bet it would make a significant dent. Unfortunately, it would make for a logistical nightmare of traffic downtown. Although it would also alievate the bus tunnel from getting clogged up for 20 minutes at 5pm by a homeless person who demands the bus ramp from Pioneer Square to University Street. There’s just no winning these days with the crowding.

    1. It sounds like a few mixed frustrations there. Are only free riders rude and keep people from exiting? Is it only homeless people that use the ramp?

      Plus, who are you to decide who can afford a $1.50 trip? Is it fair to make people pay the same for their 2-stop journey as your 40 minute ride? I get that you’d want them to pay something, but the whole fair? I’d much rather go the other way. Pay for it all with property (or gas?) taxes and let everyone ride free. That should speed up the stops.

  4. I wish they would put ORCA readers at both the front and the back of each bus, so that they could prorate the fare by distance traveled. I’ve seen this done in other places (they deduct the full fare at the entrance, then give money back if the card is swiped at the exit). In addition to making the whole process more streamlined, it removes the 2 minute ride costing the same as a 40 minute ride problem, and makes transit more feasible for short trips. (I also wish people in Seattle weren’t so scared of RFID.) I’m strongly opposed to service reductions; most of the buses I take run every half-hour, and this is about the threshold that I’m willing to put up with. I don’t mind taking the bus to the grocery store and back if there’s a maximum wait of 29 minutes, but I would just drive my car if it were much more than that. I realize that there are other buses that run more often, but I suppose they run more often for a good reason.

    1. Being scared of RFID only counts for a tiny, tiny slice of the population, and has *nothing* to do with ORCA, thankfully.

      Front and back would be great, although I think we’d have to do a lot of sidewalk work. Many stops are only accessible at the front.

      1. I’d think this wouldn’t matter. You could still swipe your Orca card at the front. The one at the back is just so you don’t have to exit at the front.

      2. Yeah, my point about exiting at the rear is that a lot of our stops (hundreds) aren’t configured for that. It’s often unsafe, especially if you’ve got buses bunched up.

    1. Rob McKenna, when he was on the King County Council, pushed through a rule on Metro funded that says that 20% of new Metro service goes to Seattle, Shoreline and Lake Forest Park, 40% for the Eastside, and 40% for South County. The population split is actually more like 40/30/30.

      1. That seems really dumb. I could see if in terms on of taxes King county was bring in 20% Seattle, 40% Eastside, 40% south county it should be 20/40/40, but I highly doubt that is the case. So what was the reasoning behind this?

      2. So what was the reasoning behind this?

        For one thing, in terms of existing service Seattle has much better service per capita than the other places. So 20/40/40 is attempt to set the other subareas on a glide path to parity.

  5. I really appreciate your post. It makes me frustrated we when all get up in arms over rail vs. bus when we should be fighting together for more of both.

    1. It is frustating, and it’s worth noting usually the people bringing up “rail vs bus” are the people against both.

      Those of us who are for both are trying to tear down their arguments.

    2. Right now, today, I can fight locally for more rail. I can’t fight locally for more bus service, because that’s a legislative issue.

      If we don’t fight the notion that buses are all we need, we will lose, just as we have several times in the past. That’s what lost this in 1968 – the same FUD as we have today. Seriously, ‘brt is better’ was the opposition argument then.

      You CANNOT have a meaningful discussion during an election. 99.9% of voters don’t want or need more than a sound bite. The nuances of core corridors versus feeders are lost on all but a handful. Look at the Times yesterday. You start talking about the merits of both, and this is what you get. It makes people question, which makes them vote no.

  6. Two questions on fare increases:

    – How would fare increases affect the cost of employer-sponsored transit passes?

    – How does Metro figure revenue per boarding, given passes, transfers, and the like?

    1. – strictly speaking, they wouldn’t, transit passes are priced separately. they’d likely go up at the same time, though.

      – If I were them, I’d divide total boardings by total revenue… you don’t have to deal with any of the granular stuff when you have the totals.

  7. I’d love to see increased ad revenue cover at least some of the costs, however with the current state of the economy I am fully aware that most companies are scaling back advertising.

    I’d love to se a gas tax, but I think that is probably political death. I doubt people will stand for it given the current state of gas prices (yes they’re down now but they’ll be up again in Spring….just like they do every year). I also wouldn’t mind seeing a small property tax increase if it helps, at least for the short term.

    A fare increase is more than fine with me. If you look at how much more expensive it has gotten to own a car in the last few years vs. the small increase in fares, bus riders still come out far ahead.

    I think our best option is a combination of revenue sources. This way no one group of people take the financial hit by themselves. Service cuts are an absolute last resort for me. As someone who NEEDS the bus to get around, I DO NOT want cuts in any service if there is any possible way to avoid them.

    1. Re: gas tax. There’s a great idea I heard recently (maybe at Sightline?) for a gas tax that levels out our gas price volatility. Just scale your tax based on gas prices. Under, say, $3/gallon and there’s a high tax. Over $5/gallon the tax is low. Bump up these numbers every few years, to keep up with prices (can be done automatically by indexing the average annual oil price). This does result in a variable income for taxing agencies, but there are ways of evening this out.

      This way gas taxes increase when gas is cheap – which is much less painful for consumers.

      1. I think that is a fantastic idea, I just think that no politician will dare touch a gas tax proposal for fear of car-centric voter backlash. Despite the current drop in gas prices, drivers are still really sensitive about fuel prices, and any politician that would ask them to pay more……well let’s just say I can see the attack ads now.

        I really hope I’m wrong.

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