Fred Butler (Sound Transit)

[OOPS: There’s a mistake at the end of this post, although it doesn’t impact the point that there are many ways of looking at this. Corrections are below the jump.]

[UPDATE: Butler reports he got the numbers from Metro staff.]

During the last Regional Transit Task Force meeting on August 5th, Task Force member and Issaquah City Councilmember Fred Butler circulated a letter calling for more strict subarea equity in the service reduction alternative the task force was considering:

At the very least, I would like to have Metro generate an alternative scenario for service reductions that gives more weight to geographic equity among the three transit planning subareas. Further, looking forward to system growth, the task force should consider at least two alternatives, one of which gives equal weight to geographic equity and productivity.

The table below summarizes the proportional statistics that highlight geographic equity concerns regarding Metro service. Key points are:
• West subarea currently receives a disproportionately large share of transit service hours compares with its share of population, growth, and sales tax receipts
• The R1 scenario for service reductions would exacerbate the current imbalance, most acutely in East County, which is projected to loose [sic] twice the share of its current transit service compared with the other two subareas.

The table he provides is this one:

Butler is just looking out for his constituents, but the “share of total reductions” column is subject to a lot of interpretation. Because of King County’s asymmetric subarea policies, there are a lot of ways you can manipulate these numbers, but my assessment is that the split is 25% East, 14% South, and 62% West — in accordance with current policy for the West and otherwise favoring South over East. More after the jump.

The uncertainty comes from the fact that the add service and reduce service rules are different. Service must be added in the proportion 40/40/20 (East/South/West), while cuts must happen proportionally to existing service (17/22/61). Therefore, the balance of service is path-dependent. To conform with policy, a system that remains steady at 3m service hours looks a lot different than one that cuts 500,000 hours but then puts them back again. In this case, Metro is adding hours for things like RapidRide at the same time it’s applying cuts, so what you count where makes a big difference.

To me, the most straightforward way to do this is look at the Spring 2009 numbers that began this cycle of cuts and compare that to the endstate after the cut plan. You can see the R-1 service reduction draft broken out by subarea on pg. 9 here. It should be noted that the grand totals at the bottom of that sheet are not correct.

Using this system, a total of 325,000 hours are cut, split 25%/14%/62% as indicated above. Alternatively, one could count RapidRide and the SR520 funds as in the baseline, but lump in efficiency reductions with the rest of the cuts, in which case you come up with 22%/17%/62%: not much change. [Update: 26%/21%/53%, roughly in line with Butler’s number.]

However, the depicted RapidRide numbers aren’t in accordance with 40/40/20. RapidRide is part of the Transit Now package. RapidRide has 3 lines in the West and two elsewhere, but the package was compliant due to additional regular suburban service. Earlier in the budget crisis, Metro deferred the non-RapidRide increases. Excluding SR520 funds that are not subject to 40/40/20 (which favors the Eastside), 43,000 West RapidRide hours implies 86,000 new hours in both East and South. If the deferred 97,000 hours are added to the baseline we then arrive (roughly) at Butler’s numbers of 28%/20%/52%.

So, to summarize: if we take Spring 2009 service levels and we compare them to the endstate of plan R-1, the West is in proportion, and South gains at the expense of West. If one counts deferred Transit Now service as cuts, then West gains at the expense of East. [Update: If one counts in all the planned new service and then computes the cuts, then South is in proportion and West gains at the expense of East.]

Of course, all of this discussion grants that subarea accounting is really the right way to allocate service. Subareas are essentially arbitrary. If you viewed service by city, or precinct, or legislative district, or at the county level as a whole, you would get different results that are not obviously less valid then the East/South/West paradigm.

The Task Force meets again August 19th.

Note: This explanation of Butler’s numbers is reverse-engineered by the author. I have an email in to Butler asking him how he arrived at his result.

28 Replies to “Fun With Numbers”

  1. The way that service hours are calculated is disingenuous. A route that runs from Issaquah to Seattle is split between the subareas when really that route is serving people from Issaquah much more than from Seattle. That table also does not include fare box receipts or pass purchases.

    What we really need to do is have Seattle run its own transit system and absorb metro into Sound Transit to run region service to the suburbs.

    1. Question: Should a suburban route be split between Seattle or charged to one or the other?
      One could make the case (although I doubt I’d get many takers) that Seattle should pay to bring workers into the downtown core to fill their office buildings. They benefit from not having to build more streets and parking to accommodate them, and their carbon footprint is less on a bus. While in downtown, they spend a lot of money.
      On the other hand, suburban workers are paid much more for a Seattle job than a similar job out in the sticks, so maybe they should pay all of it.
      I dunno. Maybe splitting the difference is fair after all.

      1. I’ll go for the position that the central city should pay for commuter service. Their businesses get workers; their retail shops get shoppers; their entertainment venues get patrons.

        On the other hand, perhaps people should live near to where they work.

      2. It seems silly to charge Seattle for any commuter routes which duplicate Link service. If Seattle’s paying, then shouldn’t Seattle have the right to truncate all those South King commuter routes to TIBS? They haven’t done this yet because people in South King want their one-seat ride… but shouldn’t the people getting that one-seat ride be the ones paying for it (from their taxes)?

        Alternatively, if employers and retailers are the ones benefiting from the one-seat commuter service, then they should set up a local improvement district to pay for it.

        Either way, a sales tax is primarily a tax on Seattle residents, and it seems perverse to charge Seattle residents for commuter service that they will never use.

      3. Aleks,

        The routes being applied to the north subarea for statisical purposes is separate from the list of routes the City of Seattle is subsidizing.

        I’m 95% sure, based on conversations with SDOT folks, that the city is only subsidizing routes that provide service in Seattle neighborhoods, excluding downtown. Some of those routes do exit the city limits (like the 60, for short spans), but they are routes that primarily serve Seattle residential riders.

        BTW, SDOT is expected to come out with a new draft Transit Master Plan any day now. That plan will include a list of routes the city wishes to discontinue subsidizing, start subsidizing, subsidize more, less, etc.

        Comment period will follow. Keep your eyes open.

        The new route subsidy list isn’t final until after negotiations between Seattle and Metro (which actually seems to occur more often than updates to Seattle’s Transit Plan).

      4. I was specifically referring to Brent and aw’s claims that the central city (e.g. Seattle/North King) should pay for commuter service. I’m glad to hear that it doesn’t. :)

      5. “A route that runs from Issaquah to Seattle is split between the subareas when really that route is serving people from Issaquah much more than from Seattle.”

        I think all-day routes split the difference, but one-direction peak routes are charged to the residential end.

        “perhaps people should live near to where they work.”

        What if they’re a temporary worker, or the only job they can find is across the county, or they’re a Boeing worker who gets arbitrarily transferred to different plants.

        Most of the manufacturing jobs are in Kent, Issaquah, and Bothell in non-walkable areas. Many of the high tech jobs are on the Eastside in non-walkable areas. Positions like school teachers and firefighters are hard to get in the city but easier to get in peripheral towns. These are all places people might not want to live, and living there means they’d need a car for most daily errands.

        So yes, ideally people should live near where they work. But currently a lot of jobs are in transit-challenged, non-walkable areas.

      6. On the other hand, suburban workers are paid much more for a Seattle job than a similar job out in the sticks

        Not really. companies relocating to the suburbs can perhaps offer lower wages but from the employee standpoint it’s a wash since costs of working DT (parking, going to lunch, commuting, etc. are higher… not to mention the time differential if you live in a lower cost suburban home. Add in an equalizer for cost of education if they have kids. There’s no incentive for suburban based workers to pay a premium to get that DT wage. Then you start to look at the cost to the employer of higher taxes, until recently higher rents, higher insurance, yeah; I think the cost of express buses from the suburbs really benefits the downtown employers more than the employees. If Seattle loses that tax base what can they do to make it up?

      7. A lot of Seattle based jobs don’t exist in the suburbs.

        How would suburban cities make up the lost property tax revenue if everyone moved closer to their jobs in Seattle?

      8. The dirty little (not so) secret of municipal finance is that residential doesn’t pay its own way, i.e. the cost of providing services (police, fire, water, etc.) outstrips what it gives back in property taxes. Sales tax and permit fees are the big general fund revenue streams. So in general cities don’t strictly care if people move out of town, but they do care if they stop shopping in town or building new homes and businesses in town.

        For some great examples, look at the newly incorporated cities like Sammamish, Maple Valley, Newcastle or Covington. Their tax bases are so slim because they are mostly residential that they have extreme difficulty providing adequate services.

      9. We already subsidize their roads. Why do we have to subsidize their buses as well. Personally I would rather they drive, which most of them do anyway, if it meant I had better bus service in my neighborhood.

  2. Thanks for the effort but I’m still confused. We know from watching rail transit opponents how Figures can Lie and Liars can Figure, and I sense that phenomenon is at work in calculations showing Seattle is overserved and the rest of King County is underserved, and oh, just ignore where the overloaded buses are, and the empty ones….

    All I know is that unless this is straightened out, this Seattle voter is Voting NO on further transit funding increases.

    1. There’s no value judgment here on whether is overserved or underserved. It’s just a question of how the subarea allocation compares to Metro’s current policy.

      1. No value judgment in your mind, fine, but it’s unavoidable when you consider the politics involved. When 20/40/40 (originally targeted at 0/50/50!) was established, suburban politicos were clearly expressing that Seattle was overserved and the suburbs underserved.

  3. Would there be any value in measuring sub-area equity by the degree to which the service hours are subsidized rather than merely the quantity of service hours provided? That way each sub-area would get roughly the same amount of money back they paid in taxes. Of course, it would mean less service hours for routes with poor ridership, but wouldn’t this make for a more efficient transit system?

    1. I’m sure if you did that by sub-area, it wouldn’t create any anti-poor distortion. The regions are too large to differ substantially in that regard.

    2. That’s a brilliant idea, and one that wouldn’t be too hard to figure out. Each route has it’s own line item for route performance, hours assigned, etc and when farebox revenue is deducted, equals net subsidy per route number, or segment of route (am, peak, mid-day, etc).
      Charging each sub-area with it’s own subsidy would be a huge incentive for each sub-area to ‘trim the fat’, and not create more. Seattle routes would benefit from their higher farebox return rates, thus enabling more frequency on busy lines.
      Of course you still have to split some routes that serve both Seattle and suburbs, like the 150, but it would be interesting to see how that scenario plays out.

    3. Sound Transit is already doing this. And it’s a proven success because people criticize Sound Transit’s equity less than Metro’s. Whenever somebody complains that we should postpone one subarea’s project to speed up another’s, the response is, “Their own taxes are paying for it, and can’t be transfered to another subarea.” It would also have a similar effect as Seattle Transit seceding from Metro (as some have proposed), without creating yet another agency and fare structure.

  4. I wonder if at some point STB could do one or more posts on the Metro Taxi Script program. I believe what it entails is they offer discounted script that can be used for fixed miles of rides (?).

    In the case of bus service reduction could this program be implemented so that people who need to get to specific destinations like supermarkets can do so without having to have a round the clock bus route?

    Is this program cost effective…or costly?

    And so on.

    1. Scrip is taxi vouchers which low-income disabled and elderly can buy. The taxi companies participate voluntarily, and I suppose they can refuse a trip if the distance is excessive. I don’t know about the cost of the program.

      My UW geography professor, who shall remain nameless, claims that taxis for the handicapped — and even as a wholesale replacement for all buses — would cost less to administer than the current Metro system. I don’t believe it, especially considering a $10 taxi fare takes you only three miles. And how many taxis would it take to carry a full 358 busload every morning?

  5. One has to wonder if the economies of scale are starting to fail for metro; and its not time to look at splitting the system up into two or three smaller systems (city of seattle, South/South east, north/north east). I’d wager a guess with the tunnel out of the equasion, that the service(s) could be provided for a lesser cost than whats currently provided by metro, as when an origization gets too big the pendiulm starts swinging the other way. This is also the reason why i oppose a total takeover by Sound Transit as it will simply drive operating costs up, and make the political scene too unwieldly to manage.

    1. Any organizational change, whether a merger or breakup, comes with a high transition cost. Even if Seattle would be better with its own bus operator — and I’m not positive that it would be, though I can definitely see the argument — it’s almost definitely not worth the cost of setting up a whole new organization.

      There’s also the question about what to do with routes that cross the borders. Should 101/106 be billed to Seattle, South King, or both? This becomes especially amusing when you realize that, with complete subarea equity, Seattle has a strong incentive to truncate as many routes as possible to TIBS. That way, they can say, “Whoops, these routes don’t go to Seattle, so we’re not paying.” Whether the effect would be good or bad, I don’t know, but it’s a weird way to make the decision.

      1. The 101 and 106 are all-day routes, serving both Rentonites going to Seattle and Seattlites going to Renton. They’re a basic part of regional mobility, like the 150, 550, 358, and 174. (Most of these are being upgraded to RapidRide, and will likely be replaced by rail someday.)

        However, peak-only unidirectional routes like the Kent-Seattle expresses serve only suburban residents. They’re useless to Seattlites because they go the wrong direction for work. At most you can take an outbound express after work, and then come back on the regular bus. So these routes are charged to the suburban subarea.

        Link, being ST rather than Metro, doesn’t fit into Metro’s revenue structure or 40/40/20 very easily. Seattle can tell Metro to truncate the routes, but Metro can tell Seattle to go to hell.

  6. The majority of growth in the next 10-20 years is not going to happen in Seattle – it is going to be in the suburbs. But these arent the suburbs your dad grew up in. Look at Downtwon Bellevue (, or Downtown Redmond Look at the Bel Red Corridor plan. Heck, look at microsoft, which reached a 40% alternative mode split goal years early and is looking at shooting for 50%.

    The suburbs are completing their grid network, changing land uses and creating amenities that make transit, biking, walking real options. They need transit service to support that vision.

    But if we insist on only investing in transit where transit already works, we are going to create two distinct places, one special, limited nirvana where alternative modes work, and a vast swath that is completely auto dependent. And its the latter that is going to be growing fastest.

    1. The TOD page you linked to explains the issue perfectly: transit-oriented development works best when it encourages walking within an urban center and taking transit to other urban centers.

      Right now, transit on the Eastside (and in Seattle, and in South King) is full of “milk run” routes that can never be efficient. If these routes were scrapped or cut back, it would free up an enormous amount of resources for routes that are actually useful, like the 230/253/255/545/550.

      There should be 15-minute or better service between every combination of DT Seattle, UW, DT Bellevue, Redmond Town Center, and DT Kirkland 18 hours a day*. In fact, there should be 10-minute service, but I’d settle for 15 for now. That’s the kind of service that makes people want to take transit. Having dozens of hourly routes, even if it fulfills 20/40/40, will do nothing to make the Eastside less auto-dependent.

      * Note that I’m explicitly excluding Overlake. Overlake is an employment center, and unless there’s a radical change in the next few years, OTC is fundamentally about commuter service.

    2. “The suburbs are completing their grid network”

      Parts of the suburbs are becoming transit-friendly and walkable. And there should be Link/Swift/RapidRide between all of them. But these urban villages are not all of Bellevue and Redmond; they leave large swathes of low-density behind.

      The problem is that the dense areas are also the most expensive to live in, and unaffordable to those below the median income or who have children. (Lest you think everybody on the Eastside is rich, there are a lot of service workers.) This is partly because almost all the dense areas are new construction. The only place on the Eastside with relatively high density and low rents is Crossroads.

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