Metro’s having trouble getting any more tax revenue. We’ve been asked what we think they should do in the absence of new taxing authority, so here are two ideas.
As a guiding principle, if your preference to ride the bus is relatively weak, then you’re going to be thrown over the side. If an extra 50 cents a day, or another transfer, or another 10 minutes is enough to put you back in your car, then we’ll see you the next time Metro’s budget is sustainable. This is an unfortunate choice to make, and ultimately corrosive of the broad base of support Metro enjoys. Nevertheless, when compared to alternative guiding principles this seems like a sound one.
1. Raise fares again, while creating a program to provide discount tickets to low-income people.
Fare increases have a remarkable return on investment considering the pain they inflict on commuters. First of all, to a significant extent fare increases are actually borne by progressive employers that buy passes for their employees. Not only does this not hurt the employee directly, but often accrues benefits to Metro even if he or she doesn’t ride the bus. Secondly, many less-progressive employers still take advantage of federal tax provisions that allow pass purchases to be pre-tax. To the extent that pass sales equal fare revenue, this amounts to a 50% matching grant from the federal government on each fare increase.
However, this argument doesn’t really apply to the poorest among us. They often pay cash because they can’t scrape the money together to purchase a pass; their employment might be too infrequent for a pass to pencil out; or their employer won’t do the paperwork for the tax break. In many cases, their marginal tax rate will be very low or zero, so that the deduction doesn’t help them.
That’s why it’s important to use a portion of the proceeds from the fare increase to offer discounted ticket books (or ORCA card charges, or whatever) through existing King County low-income assistance programs. Depending on how the numbers work out you could merely freeze low-income fares at the current level or actually introduce a reduction.
Can King County administer such a program cheaply? That’s a critical question, but that’s why it’s important to implement it as an add-on to existing programs, even if that results in some other suboptimalities.
A 25-cent increase, as of 2008, was projected generate $11.7 million in revenue. It would take $2.25 in increases to cover the $100m shortfall, assuming this increase is linear, which it isn’t. That clearly isn’t an option. However, I would consider an extra 50 or even 75 cents as within the bounds of reason. After the low-income rebate, Metro might expect to close 10-20% of the 2010 budget hole, thus avoiding a service cut of about 2-4%.
2. Leverage the express bus network to reduce Metro operating hours.
The county has a unique opportunity in that as Metro service scales back, Sound Transit is adding 100,000 service hours as a result of Proposition 1. Furthermore, ST is still in the process of determining how to allocate these hours, opening up the opportunity for cross-agency coordination to minimize impacts to riders.
ST has pretty good coverage of most interstates and state highways in the County. Given the current situation, there really shouldn’t be Metro buses on these highways. Instead, redirect the local riders on these routes to transit nodes (light rail stations, park-and-rides, etc) and force a transfer. It’s true that this will reduce ridership, but by working with Sound Transit the peak-period express-bus headways can be reduced, and only the most marginal-preference riders will be affected.
For example, the 212 is a direct express from the Eastgate P&R to downtown Seattle, which is duplicative with ST 554. In the reverse peak direction, it also skirts the edges of the Factoria area before getting on the freeway. Under this plan, the 212 could be eliminated in favor of more 554 service paid for by Sound Transit. Riders who got on in Factoria could instead take Route 245 to Eastgate and board the 554 there, assuming ST committed Prop 1 funds to improve it to 15-minute headways in the peak.
In Seattle, there is less Sound Transit service to leverage, but there are opportunities for efficiencies along I-5, SR 522, and Central Link. Elsewhere, Metro could abandon the paradigm of peak-period routes from essentially every neighborhood to downtown and instead drop passengers onto primary N-S arterials (Aurora, 15th, etc) and force a transfer.
A systematic route-by-route analysis will have to wait, but in principle I think this could generate substantial operating savings, depending on your threshold for rider inconvenience. I don’t deny the fact that this plan will substantially reduce ridership, leaving the state ever farther from reaching its VMT and greenhouse gas goals. No plan without increased tax or direct subsidy will. If the state is not going to cough up any funding to meet those goals — or give King County the authority to — we’ll have to do the best we can. The advantage to my plan is that it selectively serves the people most dedicated to riding transit, out of need or conviction, no matter where they live.
I can’t yet claim Metro can cover the entire ~17% service cut you need by basically not putting Metro buses on the freeway. But Metro can close the lions’ share of the gap, thus minimizing the extent to which they are cutting overcrowded routes and abandoning service areas altogether. In the end, no compassionate plan for cuts is going to completely close the gap without some sort of tax revenue enhancement.