This is the sixth and final installment of my series on County Executive Kurt Triplett’s plan to solve a Metro budget crisis that now amounts to $501m over four years. The plan, when finalized in September, will serve as the basis of the budget the Council actually adopts in November, to be implemented beginning with the February 2010 service change.
The installments of the series were:
- Part I: Introduction
- Part II: Transit Now, non-service-related cuts
- Part III: Tax Shifts and Financial Engineering
- Part IV: Fare Increases, Audits
- Part V: Service Suspensions
Some thoughts on this plan are below the jump.
First, I want to applaud Executive Triplett for producing the most serious plan, one that makes no rosy assumptions. By not banking any savings from the upcoming audit results, Triplett has presented us with a worst-case scenario for cuts, and saved the good news for later.
I’ve been diving deep enough into these Metro budget issues to understand all sides of the argument pretty well, enough that I don’t see an easy answer as to what the best way to direct cuts is. As a practical matter, I find Triplett’s argument that eliminating certain routes would make it very hard to restore service persuasive. He’s right that it’s an “optimistic” plan. If the State is actually going to deliver additional taxing authority, then the balanced suspensions will be the most seamless platform to quickly restore service. If no such authority is forthcoming (or the County will simply not raise taxes), then Metro might as well begin the difficult work of determining which routes comprise a less ambitious system, and therefore cut low-productivity routes.
Although the right path is murky, there are arguments on both sides that are unnecessarily hysterical. On the productivity side, people argue as if riders per service hour is the only relevant metric. Metro serves a greater set of objectives than that, and all sides should acknowledge that other arrangements of Metro priorities aren’t self-evidently idiotic or malicious.
On the other hand, those fighting for low-ridership routes (like the new 42) deploy the fallacy that an additional transfer is the same as being cut off from Metro. All significant populated areas in the County deserve transit service, but they don’t necessarily deserve a one-seat ride into Downtown Seattle or Bellevue. We must break this mentality if we’re ever to rationalize the system into one of rapid trunk lines and local feeder routes.
Triplett’s attempt to scale back Transit Now and foot ferry expansion is a smart one. It makes little sense to bring additional service online — service which is generally unproductive, and which riders have not yet learned to depend on — while other service is being suspended. However, Triplett also makes the two correct exemptions: RapidRide and Service Partnership funds. Both enable substantial matching funds, and RapidRide represents, potentially, a step-change in service that must not be deferred. I hope the County stands fast against sentiment to not only curtail RapidRide service, but also to scale back the amenities that make it more than a mere rebranding exercise.
There are two areas where I don’t think the Executive’s plan is aggressive enough in avoiding suspensions. First, fares: as we’ve argued in the past, thanks to tax incentives the Federal government bears a substantial share of any fare increase. Commenter Bernie points out that there’s a very good case to be made for increasing the two-zone fare more steeply. The cost of serving these riders is higher, the gasoline savings to those riders is bigger, and as fares spiral upwards the relative gap between the two fares is shrinking.
The other shortcoming is taxes. The Triplett plan — largely because of a total lack of tax-increase sentiment on the Council — avoids any tax increase by transferring authority from other sources to Metro. There’s an additional 2 cents of property tax per $1000 of assessed value still on the table. I acknowledge that it’s easy for a single-issue advocate like me to push for a tax rise, and $6m a year isn’t going to eliminate all of our problems. However, many County leaders have blamed the State for not providing the County adequate funding authority, and are counting on the legislature to revisit that in the future. By not using the authority that we do have, even in the putative “recovery” years of 2012-2013, we totally undercut the County’s argument in Olympia.
A 2-cent property tax rise in 2012, combined with a third 25-cent fare increase in that year, would generate $48m to partially offset $90m in service suspensions over the next four years. It would also generate about $18m annually going forward. If Triplett’s guess is correct that about $50m will be uncovered by the audit next month, that would mean no cuts at all, while leaving a surplus to either add new service, expand low-income fare subsidies, or restore secondary services like security and stop cleaning. Even with nothing coming out of the audit, it would save tens of thousands of service hours and avoid spending cuts in the midst of a recession.