Feb. 2012 Cut Proposal (Affected Routes in Black)

Yesterday Executive Constantine formally introduced legislation to enact a $20 “Congestion Reduction Charge,” or two-year vehicle license fee that avoids deep Metro cuts for two years, in the hope that legislative solution will emerge in that time. Metro also unveiled a new website that explains the measure in deep detail.

Mr. Constantine’s office hopes that at least six County Councilmembers will vote to enact the charge without the added effort of a ballot measure. By law, the Council cannot act on its new authority until July 22nd.

To illustrate the cuts, Metro released a plan for the first 100,000 hours of up to 600,000 service hours of cuts that might eventually be necessary (see map above). In the absence of the fee, these cuts would take place in February 2012. The plan would eliminate 20 routes altogether and reduce service on 12 others. These cuts are drawn from Metro’s lower performing routes and are certainly not the most painful ones on the horizon. That said, service reorganization proposals (like mine in the Rainier Valley) depend on the hours being cut here to make it work; when these hours disappear, those plans are no longer viable. And in spite of low ridership, these cuts do cause pain, and for no real gain to the transit system.

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54 Replies to “Constantine Unveils $20 License Fee, First Round of Cuts”

  1. I don’t get Dow’s strategy here. These are about the least painful cuts you could imagine. They’re almost all guaranteed to happen at some point, and most of them should have happened ages ago. Why use these to illustrate the potential for painful cuts? Start telling people the 26 and 28 might go away if they don’t vote for the fee and then you’ll have their attention.

    1. Eh, my take is that the cuts are not for people who actually care about transit, it’s to throw something to the tea party types who’d say “They haven’t even cuts any service!” (Of course they’ll say something negative anyway, but this way there’s a comeback about cuts.)

    2. Wrong. This strategy is brilliant. These cuts will be painful to groups with vocal lobbies who will scream bloody murder. Voters will take the bait and feel compelled to vote for the ballot measure. Using a hatchet where a scalpel is needed is a clever political tactic. The least painful way to cut would be to fractionally increase headway systemwide. But if they did that, they wouldn’t get their ballot passed.

      1. And then what? Most of these services are horrifyingly inefficient and ought be be cut. If we go to a ballot saying “vote of this or the 42 gets it” we cannot then axe the 42 in favor of a route that is not a complete waste of money.

        Across the board reductions would be extremely painful. A lot busses are already standing room only in the PM peak, including lots of suburban commuter busses. Threatening an across-the-board cut doesn’t tie us to keeping stupid routes if the $20 fee passes.

      2. Here’s one small example of how cunning these cuts are. Take the route 99. At first glance, it’s just a tourist route that generates no farebox revenue. But upon closer examination, one realizes it services the powerful Port of Seattle headquarters. Many of its employees rely on the 99 (the only public transportation serving Alaskan Way), to get to the Sounder, LINK, etc. So what, you say? With one, apparently insignificant route deletion, King County has just enlisted the influential Port to work on getting the ballot passed.

      3. Route 99 has been identified for ages as a poorly-performing route. Regardless of farebox revenue, it performs terribly on almost every metric:


        This is not a political set of cuts. There is nothing cunning about this list. It’s an honest-to-goodness set of cuts that axe the worst routes in the county. And if it’s presented to voters as a choice to “save these busses”, then the Metro has politically committed itself to not axing the worst routes in the county.

      4. Fractionally increase headways systemwide, Sam?? Like increasing headways on 30-minute service to 33 minutes? or maybe 35?

        Obviously you’ve never been a regular user of a transit system or you would realize how cumbersome and indecipherable this would make the system.

      5. 99 has no farebox recovery – it’s free. It was a temporary measure while King County found a new maintenance barn for the waterfront streetcar. It has terrible ridership because it’s so infrequent and you can walk the route pretty easily. Removing it is just King County admitting the streetcar is dead.

      6. Not only is the 99 free (no fare recovery) and infrequent enough to be useless across most of it’s short rought, the northbound portion now runs on first, making it truly irrelevent for waterfront use (and uselessly complicated to try to explain to tourists)

      7. You’re right about tourist use, although on its new alignment, the 99 consistently gets full commuter loads going north on 1st during the AM peak, and slightly less so during the PM peak — much better than I suspect it did on the waterfront. I wouldn’t be surprised if its ridership went up this year, although it probably still performs badly.

      8. These aren’t even scalpel cuts; more like squeezing the zits. Dow still is convinced it’s a revenue problem and not a spending problem. The more that gets poured in the worse it will get until there’s a change of leadership. The only cuts so far have been courtesy of the transit union.

      9. The 99 is not necessary because:

        1) The end-to-end distance is short enough that any trip you could take on it, you could just walk instead.
        2) There are tons of other buses already serving the same area, going down either the same street or adjacent streets 1 or 2 blocks away. The combined frequency of all the buses going down 1st and 2nd Ave downtown is at least every 5 minutes (maybe even every minute or 2 during the peak) without the 99. The 99 is simply redundant, pure and simple.

        If the 99 is going to be cut, I say good riddance to it.

        Across-the-board cuts, on the other hand, would be a terrible alternative. This would lead to massive overcrowding and longer wait times on the routes lots of people depend on, not to mention that it would mess up the timing for anyone that has connections.

        I am very glad the Metro planners are taking the opportunity to cut the fat while minimizing the pain for most users, even at the risk of pissing off a tiny group of people.

      10. Didn’t know about the reroute. Sunday my son took me to a performance at the Hard Rock. We arrived via ferry (complicated weekend) and walked over. Turned out great since we had terrific weather. Note from the waterfront; getting rid of the viaduct isn’t going to make much difference. The current sky bridge makes it pretty silly to go down to Alaska Way. Walking up 1st; never saw a 99.

  2. It seems weird and somewhat deceptive to call it a “Congestion Reduction Surcharge”. I think most voters prefer things to be honest and straightforward. Why not just call it what it is: Metro Transit Support Surcharge?

    Enactment of the $20 fee, which I’ll happily pay on my vehicles, isn’t to reduce congestion, it’s to support transit service. Yes you can argue that congestion will get worse if we reduce transit, but then you’d need to call it the congestion maintenance surcharge. Plus the proposal for initial reductions has little impact on congestion. Most of these reductions are not coming in congested areas.

    1. How about the “lifejacket for a drowning Metro?” fee

      Would fit nicely with the mandatory life jackets for swimmers ordinance just passed…

    2. I prefer the term mitigation. Transit does not, in general, reduce congestion much, at least over the long run in and around cities because of the tendency of excess road supply to induce demand. It provides an alternative that, ideally (in the case of grade-separate systems) is immune to the effects of road congestion, or at least avoids the worst of it.

    3. If you want an answer to that, email the legislators who wrote the bill. :)

    4. I didn’t think all voters paid close attention to these things. I know a voter that, if they know nothing about the candidates for a position, will chose the candidate that graduated from their alma mater.

  3. Lousy reporting in the Times. The story implies the $20 fee is only ‘needed’ for a temporary two year basis, then the world as we know it returns to normal.
    In fact, it only ‘kicks the can down the road’, another two years before that tax expires and a whole new round of taxes are needed. More depletion of reserves.
    When reserves get to Zero, maybe they can print some Metro Big Bucks, instead of transfers.
    This whole funding debacle started in 2008. Maybe another commission and study cycle is needed to really figure out how to get our big boy pants on.

  4. no real gain to the transit system.

    Enact these cuts on a permanent basis before the ballot measure comes up for a vote and it might have a chance of passing because people will believe Metro is serious about efficiency. Otherwise, given that Prop 1 went down in flames by more than a 10% margin forget about it. Metro will just continue to burn through cash and restart boondoggles like the demonstration ferry service Dow is so keen on.

    1. The ferry has nothing to do with Metro. The Ferry District is its own governmental entity.

    2. “Most” voters do not pay close attention to what Metro is doing. The number of people who vote against Metro because it cut their low-productivity route or doesn’t have an all-day route on their single-family street could easily equal the number of people who are angry about empty buses. In fact, a lot of the people who are angry about empty buses would vote no no matter whether Metro enacted these cuts or not, because either they’re delusional (they think Link is empty even when it’s not) or they’re offended by any bus that doesn’t have at least 50 passengers in it (which would eliminate most evening service everywhere).

  5. So Metro say that they are ‘losing money’ on these routes that are being cut. What if a private operator thinks that a smaller less costly bus operation could run them instead? Could a private operator run them with no subsidy, for their own company benefit? How would they go about gaining approval for that?

    1. Almost certainly not. Only a handful of Metro routes run above 50% farebox recovery, and I doubt it’s reasonably possible to run any service at half the current cost.

      1. OH DEAR! veolia are terrible, terrible, terrible. The company i work for are currently purchasing loads of vehicles from their aborted services running in wales, uk. They are so useless they are selling vehicles worth £65k for less than £20k. The tales of three year old buses being stripped for parts and the shells being sold for scrap. The company is totally incompetant from top to bottom. What they did when they were Connex in the uk rail business was basically syphon money from the government back to france instead of running trains, cleaning them or maintaining them. They got bailed out twice to the tune of millions and the THIRD time they asked for £65 million for ONE YEAR on top of everything else the government stopped the contract and took over direct control of what is now the southeastern franchise. They had to spend two years deep cleaning all the trains they were that bad. and replace all the windows. oh and all the seat cushions too……

        That wasn’t what i was aiming at with my first comment. I was wondering about a small, not top heavy company making a go of some of the marginal services.

    2. I say it’s possible. The business could be just a guy and a bus. Set up a website to schedule buses and possibly take payment, and just run with it. It’s certainly possible that there are enough people that would value this service at multiple times what Metro was charging that you’ll make money. If so, hire someone else and buy another bus. Etc.

      Remember, Metro runs all of their buses at roughly the same price yet the cost saving to the rider goes up greatly with distance. I might not pay $3 a trip for my < 3 mile commute, but someone with an hour commute and expensive parking might pay quite a bit to be able to read a paper rather than stare at traffic.

      1. “The business could be just a guy and a bus.”

        That’s great until he hits someone and gets sued. Or hires some people and has to manage the myriad responsibilities that come with that. Or buys a new bus and has to figure out how to take the depreciation against his income.

        Corporations exist for a reason…

      2. And he’d have to pay taxes on his income, etc. Obviously he’d set up something like a LLC. But that doesn’t have to be a huge burden.

      3. Wouldn’t that basically be the same thing taxi companies and outfits like Shuttle Express are doing? Cabs have a franchise limited by government licenses. I’m not sure how Shuttle Express and limo services get around that. There are some limo services that are just a guy and his old Rolls or classic Bentley. Time to repurpose the STB Woodie Wagon. Keep fares low by selling tacos at the stops.

      4. True — it can be manageable. What I mean to say is that the nature of the bus-service-providing business rewards scale, consistency and at least somewhat extensive planning — all aspects that militate against the one man band. Contrast this to taxi service which is mostly driven by luck — you drive a car around and hope someone waves at you. It doesn’t matter that much if you take a day off, except that you don’t make that day’s money. No-one will use a bus service they can’t rely on.

        The NYT ran a great article about this in the context of the medical profession, discussing how single practices have, in the past decade, turned from being the norm to rapidly dwindling. Providing medical service in teams and pooling administrative resources is just more effective and efficient.

      5. Sure, if this works out it would be more efficient to run many coordinated lines. But to start off I’d take the soon-to-be-cut route of Metro’s that had the best ridership and try it out – at most you’re out the effort of a website, some legal fees, and a bus (which you can sell back).

        Why could it be profitable for one line where Metro failed at many? Because of Metro’s fixed price structure. Metro was much more efficient at this run, but still lost money because they couldn’t charge more than a few dollars. You would charge enough to pay your bills, plus a bit more for profit. If people will pay it, you win.

        Regarding consistancy, I think two factors help us: technology and redundancy. If your one bus breaks down or if you’re sick, e-mail the group of would-be customers that you won’t make it. Since your market is the suburbs, most everyone will have a car and could find another way in. This would all be built into the service, so that people know what to expect. Of course if it’s profitable you can eventually have redundant buses and a small staff of drivers, but this even works with a guy and his bus. Of course it would also be smart to have a temp agency ready with a driver, and to keep your bus well maintained so that you are rarely leaving people without a ride.

      6. Metro uses a simple price structure because it’s really freaking hard to use anything else — you need to know every rider’s start and end point, and then you have to get the money out of them, and wait while they count it out. This scales appallingly, and nothing about being a one-man show makes this any easier for that person than it is for Metro.

        You suggest having a temp agency on call in case you need a driver. Frankly, I wouldn’t give an agency temp the key to a ride on-lawnmower until I’d met them and had them do other work under my direct supervision for a week. Putting some random dude in charge of a bus would be almost criminally reckless.

        No, I’m just not buying it. This is an industry, like most nowadays that involve capital goods, where scale is everything. It’s not that any of these things couldn’t be done by a small operator, it’s that a large operator can do them better and cheaper and more reliably.

      7. Given all the regulation in the industry and the fact you wouldn’t be able to grant transfers I’d have to agree that private enterprise making a profit is highly unlikely. It’s sounding more like a route franchise similar to Fedex but with the key difference being Metro would pay the person taking over the route on the condition they meet certain performance parameters. It might be a model that leads to a more customer oriented product but union troubles, liability, program management costs all make me think it would never really work out.

      8. Metro uses a simple price structure because it’s really freaking hard to use anything else — you need to know every rider’s start and end point, and then you have to get the money out of them, and wait while they count it out.

        It could be done with ORCA. You may have seen the report entitled The High Cost of Flat Fares which basically says that flat fares generally tend to penalize low-income transit-dependent folks taking short trips while failing to capture what affluent suburban commuters would be willing to pay.

        I’d be all for a more complicated pricing structure that better reflects the value of the service provided and the cost of providing it. But first they need to do a hell of a lot better job making it easy to get and recharge an ORCA card.

      9. Indrrf, franchising routes is a model that Veolia and other large companies do — London’s bus routes are bid out in blocks to operating companies. But that ain’t the same thing as one-man-band freelancing. You have a central agency that fixes payments (to the rider and the operating company) and the companies themselves are huge enterprises — they have to be, to scale up enough to put in low bids.

      10. Whoa. I’m not talking about private industry replacing metro. A private company would serve only the well off, and never in off hours. But most any community without public buses has some form of airport shuttle type service that’s profitable. How would this be different?

        (and I admit the temp agency isn’t ideal – you’d have to just cancel service some days)

      11. This thinking is how the Bay Area (from which I moved recently) wound up with over 40 transit districts. It’s a bad idea. Things don’t have to add up economically to make sense all the time – particularly with public services. What happens there and in the other places this has been tried is that each district is now in competition for the same (ever-shrinking) pot, only now they each have their own, separate, administrative, overhead, and maintenance costs because, whether privately, semi-privately, or publicly operated, these things only work by substantial public funding.

        Large public agencies like Metro whose mission includes serving under-repesented communities actually are a better idea than lots of smaller private or semi-private outfits, as bad as they look in day-to-day news. Please trust me on this one. You don’t want to do what we did down there. We should have stuck with big, ugly agencies and simply funded them appropriately rather than looking for little fixes.

  6. Folks interested in seeing this fee approved — preferably by the Council themselves, rather than punted to a vote — should start calling and emailing their County Council members now because the votes are not solid for either option.

    Better yet, if you have friends or colleagues in other Council districts, ask them to call or email their member.

  7. Senate Bill 5457 Final Bill Report:

    Public transportation systems that impose a congestion reduction charge are required to complete a congestion reduction plan prior to implementation as well as reports detailing the expenditures of the congestion reduction charge.

    So what’s the plan to reduce congestion? The only effect I can think of is the money could otherwise be spent on gas.

  8. Good news, folks: I attended a meeting where a county employee was talking about the congestion reduction charge and service cuts. She said the list of first-wave cuts just sent to the county council is not intended as a list of what would be saved if the charge is passed immediately. Rather, those are cuts that are planned to happen regardless of the charge. We can lobby for the charge *and* for those cuts.

    1. That’s contrary to the impression I’ve gotten from everything I’ve read which claim the first round of cuts productivity improvements will take place in February if the ballot measure doesn’t pass. I reiterate, do what you know is intelligent now and I might be willing to vote for a tax increase in November (although the whole “congestion reduction” scam has me highly skeptical there’s any real impetus for anything other than boosting taxes).

    2. Bernie,

      The phrase “congestion reduction” is a product of our esteemed legislature, not a deceptive sales phrase devised by the county.

      If you want Metro to enact the first round of productivity-based cuts in February, submit comments to that effect, write your councilmember, and write to the Executive. I just sent my pro-cuts comment a few minutes ago.

      1. No way I’m trusting them to do it after they have more money. What are the cost savings in implementing this now vs waiting six more months? PT realized, after a NG explosion, that gosh.. if we’re going to cut anyway why not do it now.

      2. If the first wave of cuts were to be enacted in October, would you be more likely to support the charge?

      3. It would certainly be a step in the right direction. Oct 2010 you’d probably have a yes vote. Basically I see no attempt so far to change direction; let alone right the ship. If this doesn’t get pushed through by the County Council I see little chance of it passing. The spending problem has been evident for 2-3 years and not a whole lot’s been done except to “share the wealth” with the capital budget.

      4. Point of information, Brent. It’s too late to delete service from the October sign up…the ordinance was passed a few weeks ago. February is the first opportunity

        Also, as a Bellevue Resident, I enjoy the fact that only two of our routes get cut–219 and 927 (or 925, the Dart in Newcastle)

      5. Actually, the county council can amend previous ordinances of the county council pretty much at will, with the exception of Metro policy changes that have to come out of the Regional Transportation Committee. It’s not as if a contract was signed.

        The more pertinent question is whether Metro is logistically capable of making some of the cuts happen faster.

        …and whether the county can make it clear that passing the charge and stopping the first wave of cuts are not linked. The Executive’s two proposed ordinances, and the way they were presented, gave the distinct impression that they are.

        One more thing that doesn’t make sense is the claim that it takes two years, logistically, to ramp down service 17%, and yet if current service levels are maintained, and no replacement funding is found, a much quicker and deeper ramp-down will have to occur starting in 2013.

        Metro needs to have a plan to reduce some service and then add service back if and when a better permanent funding source is found.

        In the meantime, enacting the efficiencies that reduce the number of service hours needed to maintain the same level of service (replacement of old buses with new low-floor buses with some rear-facing wheelchair spots; stop consolidation; fare payment system streamlining — e.g. more proof-of-payment and end the incentivization of cash payment; more dedicated transit ROW, especially downtown; and more signal priority for buses) ought to continue at a rapid pace.

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