The morning, King County Executive Dow Constantine held a press conference announcing that the County Council will adopt the $20 Congestion Relief Charge to prevent a 17% cut in bus services, PubliCola reports. The fee, which applies to annual vehicle registration, will not be sent to voters and will expire in two years because of limitations set by the state legislature. The adoption of this fee is undoubtedly a win for transit advocates, who fought hard to preserve service.
Two Republicans, Jane Hague and Kathy Lambert, will join five Democrats to approve the fee outright—their change of heart comes after negotiations to implement other Metro reforms.
The biggest change is the elimination of the Seattle’s Ride Free Area, slated for October 2012. As we’ve written before, this change may be good for the system but there must be mitigation to ensure that buses can still move through downtown. The Ride Free Area is supported by most social justice advocates, but the RFA has non-trivial costs: the pay-as-you-leave system on some routes but not others can confuse riders and Metro loses some revenue by not charging fares. The County estimates that it costs $2.8 million in lost fares to provide free service through downtown but that it only receives $400,000 from the city, or just 18% of the cost.
Eliminating the RFA has the potential to reduce fare evasion and disputes, and buses that leave downtown will now allow passengers to exit through all doors instead of forcing customers to exit through the front—which can be cumbersome in a congested bus. If the transition is handled well, it could represent a large improvement in system clarity.
There is reason to be concerned, however: if fares are charged in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, as the plan indicates, buses would further delay Link light rail. Buses along Third Avenue downtown could also face delays during rush hour unless there is a way to buy bus tickets before boarding or ORCA is heavily adopted. Disappointingly, there doesn’t seem to be any funding to provide systems to purchase bus fares before boarding, nor any incentives to increase ORCA usage.
More details on the full plan after the jump…
If help isn’t widely distributed to impoverished riders, social justice advocates will be disappointed with the change. Seattle could provide its own free downtown circulator, as Seattle Councilmember Tom Rasmussen mentioned during the conference, though I’m not sure that’s a good idea. The city could spend the $400,000 it currently pays for the RFA on additional transit service or to pay for some of the mitigations that seem necessary for transit to move smoothly through downtown.
The agreement includes four additional changes:
- Each time someone pays the $20 CRC, they will receive eight ride free bus tickets, which they can choose to keep or donate to low-income groups (more details). It’s unclear why there are no plans to integrate with ORCA.
- Discount ticket programs to low income & homeless groups will be increased to help offset the loss of the Ride Free Area.
- Cheaper DART and vanpooling will increase in areas where it’s inefficient to provide service, such as rural areas, to help offset an expected 20,000 hour cut of bus service with low-productivity.
- It seems that a modified service distribution formula will boost the priority of corridors that will be tolled in the future, such as SR-520 and SR-99. The agreement doesn’t seem to include any new funding for this service, however.
I am mostly pleased with the compromise—Metro will be better off—but it’s disappointing that there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of mitigation for the end of the Ride Free Area. It’s also disturbing that Metro seems to feel little loyalty to the ORCA program and isn’t doing much to encourage its adoption, even though that could be a critical in ensuring that buses flow smoothly. More questions are answered in this fact sheet on the Metro website.