Former Executive Kurt Triplett

When we broke the story about the King County Council forming a Transportation Benefit District in unincorporated portions of the County, media outlets who noticed focused on the implications for the South Park Bridge. And rightfully so: collapsing bridges are an important story.

Unfortunately, that overshadowed the very interesting point that when former County Executive Kurt Triplett sent a letter asking Mayors to indicate interest in negotiating to form a countywide TBD that could save some Metro bus service, there were zero positive responses and many negative ones.

Gov. Gregoire vetoed an attempt to give counties to authority to impose a vehicle license fee for transit, citing the existing TBD statute that allows a similar fee. Unfortunately, said statute requires consent of at least 60% of cities representing at least 75% of the population. Triplett’s letter was an attempt to gauge support to create a Metro-oriented TBD.

I spoke with Doug Hodson, who was Triplett’s transportation manager and now does government relations for King County DOT. Hodson that was the point of contact in Triplett’s letter. His correspondents were generally city public works managers, and the response was overwhelmingly negative. Of major cities that didn’t respond negatively, Hodson only recalled Federal Way (non-committal, but positive) and Kirkland (no response). More after the jump.

Obviously, hesitation to raise taxes in a recession was part of the problem; another concern was the inability to obtain a decision before the two week deadline. However, the most frequent concern, and one brought up by Seattle and Bellevue, was the desire to use the TBD authority within city boundaries.

TBDs can be used for any kind of transportation project: roads, pedestrians, bikes, or transit. Although Metro has no remaining Transit Now funds for new “service partnership” projects, cities could directly contract with Metro for bus service by paying the full cost.  However, I believe it’s safe to say that bus service is not what city TBDs will be used for.

In outlying areas they will no doubt be road projects, or nothing at all; Burien may have another go at their bike and ped project. It’s possible that cities could use the money to provide bus lanes, improving quality rather than quantity of service. Lastly, Seattle, Bellevue, Maple Valley, Covington, and Black Diamond all may have rail projects they’re looking to fund.  And of course the viaduct replacement project has large unfunded components for the City of Seattle.

When fielding complaints about bus service, it’s easy for municipal officials to pass the buck to the County. After all, they generally have little to no influence on what Metro does. However, in this case cities had the option of helping Metro and chose to favor other priorities. In some cases, we might like what comes of these projects, but I’m skeptical that in the aggregate this will mean more transit and less roads.

8 Replies to “Cities express little enthusiasm for saving Metro service”

  1. I think, more likely, cities are considering TBD funding to replace some of the basic road maintenance money they’ve lost to Eyeman initiatives. It wasn’t long ago that Kent seriously discussed the prospect of allowing residential streets to return to gravel if they can’t find a funding stream for pavement maintenance.

    1. Last fall, Bremerton tried to push through a TBD for “streets and sidewalks” – $30 per vehicle for three years – but it failed miserably (69% to 31%). In Bremerton’s case, though, the issue appears to be fiscal mismanagement, rather than a lack of funds caused by Eyman’s shenanigans.

      Here’s what then-city council member Mike Shepherd, writing as a private citizen, had to say in the voter’s guide:

      Bremerton City Government Can’t be Trusted to Use Street Funds Properly. Bremerton had money in its street funds which it used for fancy signs in the downtown and other frivolous projects. The City doesn’t even have a formal plan on what to do with the money raised by Car Tab Taxes. The city has a history of not following through on its commitments to citizens and there is no reason to believe that this will be any different.

      Ouch. But true, unfortunately, and the voters agreed. I think part of the lesson here is that city councils should have a solid plan in place before they go to the voters, not assume that voters will agree with their priorities, and most important, propose something that will actually benefit the community at large. I know a lot of folks were upset that this came at the same time as Kitsap Transit’s meltdown, and everybody I talked to felt that any additional “transportation” dollars from taxes should go to public transit, not building new sidewalks.

  2. I think cities rightly feel that the state needs to give Metro more direct funding or taxing capacity and that it shouldn’t be up to them to save Metro. Cities all have their own transportation projects and might have the attitude that the whole reason Metro was created was so cities wouldn’t have to directly deal with bus service.

    1. The State gave out funding authority that could either be used by cities or counties. If cities choose to take that for themselves they’re taking money from Metro. It’s that simple.

  3. It’s not too surprising that cities want to raise their own money and control it. But Seattle and Bellevue are the most dependent on Metro service – so what is their alternative?

    One potential problem with HB 2855 (which would allow local counties to institute a temporary vehicle license fee to pay for transit) is that it’s in competition with local TBDs. The legislation states that a license fee cannot be higher than $20 total without a public vote – so if a county takes action first and passes a license fee, the local city cannot, and vice versa.

    But we desperately need a new source of revenue for Metro to avoid major service cuts; this bill is our best option in the short-term.

  4. For many of these cities, up to 50 percent of transit needs are intra-city.

    Metro specializes in building inter-city routes rather than local loops.

    Thus, the exurban cities may feel they are being charged for things that are more appropriately regional, state, or even national projects.

  5. The use of a TBD to fund Metro partnerships instead of the status quo would be an improvement. Cities would have more control, it would eliminate the current system of political bargaining and provide a reliable source of funding to Metro. And by that I mean once a city has committed to a partnership it’s incumbent on them to come up with the promised funds even if it means coming out of the roads budget.

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