ECB over at the Slog gave front page treatment to a post from Matt on Orphan Road that claims that Seattle subsidizes King County’s bus operations. In fact, the opposite is true: The rest of King County subsidizes Seattle’s bus service. Seattle has more service hours per the revenue it brings in compared to the other Metro subareas (the subareas are Seattle, East King, and South King).
Matt’s “revenue” figures are fare-box revenue figures — in other words, the money you give the bus driver when you enter the bus. However, the bus system is primarily funded though sales tax receipts. While Seattle gets the most bus service of any subarea, it does not provide a proportionate amount of sales tax receipts. This basic fact, that King County subsidizes Seattle bus service, is the rationale why the 40-40-20 rule exists: That is, 40% of new service hours go to South King, another 40% go to East King, and the final 20% go to Seattle.
Matt’s post correctly illustrates that Seattle bus service is most cost-effective, but the raw numbers also neglect that there are hundreds of thousands of people throughout the county who don’t live in Seattle and who pay for bus service. And frankly, I think when we’re talking about cost-effectiveness or thinking of the word “profit” we’re not in transit-friendly territory. In truth, public transit systems are not always about the most cost-effective routes — otherwise we’d only have buses at peak times and minimal service throughout the rest of the day. And when the entire county pays for transit service, I think it’s fair to expect that much of its population should have some access to it.
Now, if Metro — given the woeful financial state it is in now — were to begin cutting bus service then I would hope that the least cost-effective routes have their service curtailed regardless of where those routes are located. Matt’s numbers illustrate that Seattle routes are generally more cost-effective than East/South King County routes.
Us in the transit community have to be careful not to Seattle boosterize, in my opinion. Our transit comes mostly from the county (Metro) and regional (Sound Transit) level. We do get a ton of bus service and light rail is running through our great city — so we are not getting the short end of the stick. And the rest of King County loves transit, too (just look at the success it has at the polls!). There is no reason to make this an us versus them argument. A lot of us live in the city and work on the Eastside, and a lot of us live across the county and work in the city.
I’m sure Matt just overlooked the sales tax revenue, and ECB didn’t mean any harm.
Update: The comments have produced some numbers. Take a look.