I would say that Martin described yesterday is not a full and comfortable solution to the funding gap that could force Metro to cut 20% of its bus service. Given the constraints of the situation, Martin’s ideas are strong and well-rounded — but those constraints must be changed by Olympia.

In addition to steep fare hikes (up to $1.25 over the last few years) and a stronger reliance inconvenient transfers, much of Metro’s less popular service would to be severely curtailed. And though these routes aren’t popular, people do depend on them. Additional savings would have to be found by cutting night and weekend service across the region. This would necessarily include even busier routes that operate in Seattle. And finally, we’d see cuts even in good, solid routes that perform well. We would all be affected, even with the smart mitigation that Martin proposes.

So yesterday’s post isn’t this blog outlining a rosy scenario for making the appropriate cuts. We are saying that with a 20% reduction of service, you run out of “appropriate” cuts very quickly and begin to harm the core service that Metro provides. We are saying that cuts would be dramatic and a disaster for the progress that this region has made over the last decade.

And the combination of the above options is not a solution to Metro’s funding gap, it’s a doomsday scenario that will turn many back toward automobile dependence and leave many unable to get to work. That isn’t just bad for congestion. It’s bad for our economy, ruinous for our environment, and a setback for our walkable, livable urban landscape.

This doomsday scenario is something Metro may be forced to do. But it shouldn’t have to.

Legislators in Olympia need to give Metro taxing authority to solve this problem, and local politicians need to use the appropriate tools to put the pressure on. From Rep. Eddy to County Councilmen Constantine and Phillips to Mayor Nickels: You have a responsibility to ensure that Metro doesn’t have to make these drastic cuts. Our region, our county, and our cities depend on you.

So news like this is not encouraging:

King County lobbyist Chuck Williams said one proposal for financing more buses, a 1 percent motor-vehicle excise tax, has gotten the cold shoulder so far from legislative leaders, who told him the idea “is dead on arrival.”

Another measure that would have expanded annual vehicle-license fees also failed to get enough support, as did a bill that would have allowed use of property taxes to help support buses. Another bill, SB5433, is still alive and would allow the county to use up to 0.3 percent sales tax for bus service. It passed the Senate and will be heard by the House Finance Committee Friday. “That’s our last shot,” Williams said.

19 Replies to “Editorial: Metro’s Funding Gap is a Doomsday Scenario”

  1. enough on the sales taxes. 9.5% is already absurd. We need to go after the gas taxes and allow it to be used for transit.

    1. A direct gas tax is unfortunately not politically possible. The state constitution limits spending the gas tax on roads and ferries. The constitution will likely be amended to allow an income tax well before it is changed to allow the gas tax to be spent on transit.

      One idea many have had is to apply the sales tax to gas. Because it is the sales tax its use isn’t constitutionally limited.

      The other ideas are to bring back the unpopular MVET or to give transit agencies property taxing authority. The best suggestion I’ve seen along those lines is to allow the ferry district taxing authority to be used for any non-road transportation use.

      1. A while back Sightline did a piece Do Gas Taxes Cover the Costs of Roads? and the answer is of course “no.” It depends on the state, but in Washington only about $964m of the $2836m spent on highways came from gas taxes (the rest is a big mix of tolls, federal money, bonds, etc.). If you think gas tax money is a overflowing pot you are sadly mistaken.

        Of course, pretty much all funding sources have fallen with the economy: sales tax, gas tax, property tax, employer tax, etc. The only way transit is going to be able to maintain funding in a down economy is tying funding to population and/or ridership in some way. That, or a infrastructure game show.

    2. I agree that the sales tax is a bad solution. It seems the other options, like the ferry property tax and the MVET tax, are dead though. That’s unfortunate.

  2. Our sales taxes are high because we have no income tax. I’d love to see gas taxes used for transit, but that would take a change in the state constitution (actually, it’s probably a good time for that). Any taxing source we can get would be fine with me.

  3. My understanding is that the $100 million “gap” is the difference between the now revised 2/17/09 projection relative to the 08/09 financial plan, which assumed large increases in revenue over the 2008-2013 period. However, the difference between the 2008 revenues ($464 million) and newly projected 2010 revenues as of 2/17/09 ($421 million) is only $43 million. I fail to see how this ~10% reduction in revenue should reduce service by 18% relative to 2008 service hours.

    Sounds to me like Metro’s cost structure may be out of control if it needs approximately 3-4% growth in revenues annually to break even. I assume revisiting COLAs and union contracts is out of the question? I assume labor costs is a huge component of Metro’s total costs.

    1. I think you’re right that Metro needs to look hard at efficiency and benchmark against other transit agencies around the country. For instance we learned that in Minnesota it’s mandated by law that 30% of the operations budget come from fares yet they cost of riding in Minneapolis is similar to Seattle. Looking at the ST Express budget payment for operations to Metro are at a significantly higher rate than Pierce or Community Transit. According to the ST 2009 proposed budget King County Metro will operate approximately 54% of ST Express bus service, Pierce Transit will operate 27% and Community Transit, 19%. Yet King County recieves 63% of the operational and maintenance money (Snohomish = $12,042M, South King = $11,051M, East King = $47,411M, Pierce = $22,600 for $93,104M total). You’d think a larger agency would have economies of scale that make it more efficient but we’re seeing the exact opposite.

      If it’s $43M that needs to be made up half of that ($21M) could come from moving funding for the SLUT to some other agency. It’s stated purpose is economic development more than efficient transit so why not let The City of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development come up with the funding and contract operations with Metro? The street car is nice but can it’s benefit compare to all of the ST Express service to Pierce County?

      1. I don’t know why I had $21M stuck in my mind for SLUT. It can’t be that high; probably more like $2.1M but still pulling in outside money for operations should be looked at. At the outset wasn’t that how it was set up?

      2. I think you should find out the real numbers. According to some financing reports I’ve read, Metro isn’t contributing anything until 2010 — but those could be out of date.

        Those “contributions” were less than $1m and they are an allocation of Seattle service hours. Allocating those service hours to a bus would be more expensive since the SLUT is efficient. So, Seattle is exchanging reduced bus service for streetcar service and saving Metro money by doing that.

      3. Boy, finding real numbers is hard. According to the 2009 King County Budget (page 13 lines 279-283):

        adopting Ordinance 16299 that raises transit fares by twenty-five cents in many fare categories on February 1, 2009, with a similar twenty-five-cent increase to take effect on January 1, 2010. This measure will generate $9.5 million in 2009 and a cumulative $22 million a year from 2010 onwards and restore the target rate of bus fares defraying about twenty-five percent of transit operating expenses.

        But if you look at the numbers in the Public Transportation Fund – Operating Sub-Fund it works out to about 16% in 2006 and projected to be down to 15% for 2010. Adding $22M only gets the ratio up to just under 19%. To make up 25% of the operating budget they need more like $62M than $22M or to cut expenses by $159M (25%) while not losing any ridership.

      4. OK, don’t know why it would be on the WSDOT website but this seems to be the best available figures (2008 projections).

        King County Metro Transit

        Streetcar operating budget is $2.1M estimated. It appears that the streetcars are owned by the City of Seattle but King County Metro foots the bill for operation. Mayor Nickles was adamant about Seattle not paying operating costs. I guess Metro pretty much gets told what it’s going to operate and is the go to agency when the State, the City, other County agencies want to lay off responsibility.

        Paratransport is more than just symbolic. It’s a significant operating cost yet very little seems to be reimbursed from the State. DSHS should be coughing up the lions share of the bill. As far as I can tell Metro receives next to nothing in Federal dollars that can be used for operations. It gets some for capital expenses but even with stimulus/bailout bucks even that’s not very much.

      5. These numbers seem to plan for the Waterfront streetcar line come back online:

        Streetcars – 8 streetcars: 3 Inekon Trio-12 streetcars, owned by the city of Seattle and operated by King County Metro; 5 antique streetcars ranging in year-of-manufacture from 1925 to 1930. The antique streetcars are currently in storage as the George Benson Waterfront Streetcar service was suspended due to the loss of its maintenance base to the Seattle Art Museum Sculpture Park.

        I think funding was planned for Waterfront operations resuming.

      6. They mention the streetcars and on Metro’s site they say they plan someday to bring them back but there’s no plans for that to happen before 2010. Or after 2010 for that matter; it’s contingent on finding funding (cruise ship excise tax?).

      7. That is definitely true, but I think that budget document may have been reflecting a different projection.

  4. Here is my rant:

    The state covers about 1 percent of the total operating costs of transit. Forced to rely primarily on sales tax, 15 of the state’s 28 transits will start reducing capacity during the next two years. When asked/pushed, legislators note that, except for King County/Metro and Community Transit, transits have not used all their local option sales tax – they tend to ignore that this is all subject to voter approval, thus not a viable option in many parts of the state. This dodge gives them an out by switching the blame to the transits, and ignores entirely how the legislators got rid of transit’s stable funding source, the MVET (remember, the Supreme Court threw out Eyman’s I-695).

    Transit’s friends are few in the legislature, and until voters start making it an issue for their legislators that will not change. It certainly won’t happen this year because of the enormity/tragedy of the $8.3 billion general fund deficit, which would not be so daunting had legislators refrained from re-instituting I-747 last year (or 2007? when,again, the Supreme Court threw it out). We will have to wait until 2011.

    So ends my rant.

  5. Here’s a letter I’m thinking of sending to my legislators (Sen. Ed Murray and Reps. Jamie Pedersen and Frank Chopp) – this is my first time doing this, so let me know how I could improve it:

    The Seattle area is a model for how a well-operated, well-planned transit network can benefit a region in innumerable ways. Unfortunately, Metro is now facing a hefty budget shortfall, and unless circumstances change and even with future fare hikes and an improving economy, will need to cut service by one-fifth, or 20%.

    A 20% reduction is more significant than you may realize for a system so dependent on links and networks. Even cutting redundant or low-priority services will have an impact on people who use those services, and that won’t nearly be enough. Significant cuts will have to be made in night and weekend service, maybe even in popular daytime routes. Metro could be reduced to a skeleton service compared to what we have now. Seattle could lose its standing as a model region for transit use, as more people are forced back into their cars, increasing congestion in a region that can ill afford it. That could have negative effects on our economy, our environment, Seattle’s urban character, and the entire state.

    It is imperative that Metro be given more taxing authority, or the state pick up more of the transit tab, or the motor vehicle excise tax be reinstated, lest disaster befall the Seattle region, not just from the standpoint of transit but in its entirety.

  6. It’s true transit has few friends in the legislature – Dow Constantine was talking about that a few weeks ago. I guess I didn’t realize just how bad it was! If we could get the Seattle delegation, much less the King County delegation, together on transit…wow. But we can’t even get that.

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